Holiday Greetings 2018

25 Nov

HAPPY HOLIDAYS 2018!

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This year has been particularly tumultuous, with good and sad times, so I’ll just cover the highlights:

The photo shows our happiest moment:  Big Brother Lyle meeting his Little Brother, Louis Seely Boeck, for the first time.  Louis was born August 19, a day ahead of the planned c-section, just as his brother had been, but with less worry because they realized what was happening more quickly than last time. He was born with bilateral club feet, which we thankfully knew about ahead of time, so were all prepared for the necessary procedures.  We were in Denver in September, so were able to drive Dottie & the baby to Anschutz Children’s Hospital where a splendid team takes wonderful care of him. He will be out of casts very soon, and then will wear braces and a bar between his feet for a while. We are so grateful for medical technology, and that the family has been able to receive the best of care.  Louis will be perfect in no time. He IS a beautiful baby! Meanwhile, Lyle at 2 ½ has become a little boy instead of a toddler and talks amazingly well. He names nearly every one of his stuffed animals “Tomatillo,” and he loves big trucks and backhoes. Max and Dottie are champs as parents! We are so proud of them all.

The year has been one of “procedures” for me: none of them serious and each of them successful. The three little operations, however, each required 6 weeks of recovery, so a lot of sitting-around time for me.  Thank goodness for the internet, and a book project about which I had to do research reading.  “Three German Women” will, I hope, be ready for publication next year.

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My altar for Dia de los Muertos: Vale, Leonardo, Giorgio, and Margaret.

Sadly, we lost three dear friends this year:  Leonardo Chalupowicz, Giorgio Perissinotto, and Margaret Brown. We were grateful to have been able to participate in a memorial service for Leonardo, at his and his husband Michael’s beautiful house in the Silver Lake Hills.  In memory of his Argentinian roots I read a poem by Borges. For Giorgio—who we have known for more than 40 years—we were in Mexico at the time of his celebration of life; I lit a candle for him in the Querétaro Cathedral. And Margaret, who offered me wise counsel and friendship in Australia, I was able to include in my Dia de los Muertos altarpiece. We loved you all, may you rest in peace!

Once again, in our probably vain attempt to hold on to our Pasadena home, we have rented it to a Huntington scholar for the academic year, and have sought less expensive accommodation elsewhere (yes, California really is that expensive!). We spent September in Denver at a friend’s house (thanks Don & Cyndy!) while seeing the family as much as we could.  In October we returned to Mexico: a little while in Ajijic on Lake Chapala where we were last year (thanks, Leslie Edwards and AirBnB!) and then, the highlight of the year so far, a visit to Querétaro, to see my cousin’s family–thanks to Robert Jones and son Roberto, and especially to Deborah Baro Peruyero, who took us to San Miguel Allende and Guanajuato to meet daughter Jenny!). We loved Querétaro and the wonderful people we met as our AirBnB hosts there. We also spent two magnificent weeks in Mexico City, where, despite the altitude and a bit of the turistas, we were enthralled by its fantastic museums and unbelievably good food.  I honestly think Mexican cuisine is the world’s most diverse and therefore best!

Now we are staying for several months at my sister Robyn’s house in Oakhurst, 20 miles from Yosemite’s South entrance. Mark & Robyn are travelling in their 5th wheeler around the country, so we are here minding the house and their five cats! We are very thankful for this arrangement, and hope that I’ll be able to get some writing done while here. Fingers crossed! In the spring we’ll go to Europe–again through the kindness and generosity of friends–to do final research in Vienna and Berlin.  Oh, to be in Europe again!

ee&gbincoyoacan_oct2018 Here we are in the lovely Mexican village of Coyoacán—home of Frida and Diego, but for us, more importantly, Leon Trotsky’s last residence.  As you can see by our smiling faces, all is well!  We wish everyone the best of holidays and a serene New Year. Despite the world’s dilemmas, we should remember all that we have and all that we are grateful for.  We hope that we get to see you all some time in the next year.  Really!

You can always contact us by email:  esauboeck@gmail.com. And as many of you are aware, I am an inveterate Facebook user, so look for me there if you’re not afraid of Zuckerberg et al!

HAPPY NEW YEAR, LOVE & PEACE!

 

 

 

 

Irmgard Kern, H.G. Rexroth, and Thomas Wolfe

19 Nov

 

[Several months ago, Irmgard Kern’s son Vincent Rexroth, who is an architect in Heidelberg, sent me by email attachment a few items that he had found in boxes of his mother’s things.  One of the items was the first four weatherbeaten pages of a typescript that Fr. Kern had written in about 1952, recounting her memories of meeting and interviewing the American writer Thomas Wolfe. I was thrilled to see this previously unknown document. She had told me this story in bits and pieces when I knew her in Darmstadt in 1974.  Unfortunately, Herr Rexroth was not able to find the last page of the typescript; he promised to keep looking for it.  But what a find! I have now contacted the people at the University of North Carolina’s Wilson Library, where Wolfe’s papers are housed.  Meanwhile, I have translated the text of these pages. What a colorful depiction of a larger-than-life figure of American literature. This is the first time anyone other than three people have seen this description of a remarkable episode in the author’s life. ]

 

[The final page of Kern’s typescript has unfortunately been lost.]

 

It was late summer 1936. All of the cultural columns in the newspapers were reporting that the American writer Thomas Wolfe was in Berlin and could be reached through his German publisher Rowohlt. The DAZ (Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung) contracted me to request an interview with Wolfe and after the interview to write about his person, his plans, his working methods. I arranged with Heinz Ledig-Rowohlt–whose reminiscences about Wolfe had just appeared in the Berlin paper Der Monat–that Wolfe and Ledig should come to our house for tea at 4:30 on Tuesday.

We lived at that time in a small furnished apartment in the house of the elderly, vivacious Berlin painter Julie Wolfthorn and her sister, the sensitive and quiet Luise Wolf, well known then as a translator and lecturer. The little house sat hidden between tall stony apartment blocks, set far back in one of the forgotten gardens of Berlin West, between grassy lawns and grottoes, under old trees:  gardens that only natives behind the facades of the Kurfuerstenstrasse and Kurfuerstendamm and other old West End streets knew about.

My husband and I lived the life of so many other freelance literati of the time, with much unrest, lots of guests (very little money), intermittent work, tons of worries: bearing some vague hope for our personal future yet overshadowed  by the very definite hopelessness in relation to the overall future. What indefinite kind of confidence we harbored was probably nothing more than the private dream that we, like so many others in these years, had to dream in order to survive.

“Be sure to make it look nice, and remember that this Wolfe is already a famous man, used to the good life. One also says that he has an enormous appetite.” My husband H.G. Rexroth said something along these lines, and so I went to the shops on Nollendorfplatz and Woyrschstrasse and bought the very best cakes and confections that could be found. It was difficult to buy things, but the tea table looked unusually enticing and rich. At 4:30 Rexroth and I sat in anticipation of our guests. Then it was five; we continued to wait. Then it was 5:30–we drank the first cup of tea ourselves. At six the doorbell rang; it was the postman with a telegram. Unexpectedly Wolfe had been given a ticket to the Olympic Games, and he didn’t want to pass up the opportunity. We rescheduled the appointment for the next evening at 8:30. Greetings from Ledig, read the telegram.  Rex and I drank up all the tea after that.

The next evening I had to meet a Chinese friend who I had met while studying in the USA. She had unexpectedly appeared in Berlin. She was a professor of “hygiene”, come to study the athletic facilities at the Olympic games. “Be sure to come back home on time,” my husband warned. “You know that Thomas Wolfe is coming at 8:30.” When I returned at quarter to nine, no one had yet appeared. The food on the table, which we had with our limited means kept over from the day before, was cold. 9:15 came and went, then 9:30. The doorbell rang. Again it was the postman, this time with a message that a prepaid telephone call was waiting at the next post office. I made my way over there, to a building about 15 minutes away. I dialed the number on the message; after a few minutes I heard music, and then there was Ledig’s voice on the phone. “ We’re coming, we’re coming, I promise. But something terrible has happened: Thomas Wolfe is sitting here with me. He has had way too much wine. But here’s the terrible part: a beautiful young woman has appeared at the next table, and he has chatted her up. We will certainly have to entertain her for quite a while. We’ll be there in about 45 minutes.”

So my husband and I went for a walk under the trees of the Kurfuerstenstrasse. The light from the street lamps fell onto the leaves that were already turning yellow; a few of them fell onto the pavement, as we spoke about the perils that the lives of famous men seemed to involve. Olympic tickets, wine, and strange beautiful women. Then Rexroth went home, and I wandered for a while back and forth on our street. It began to rain.  A little before 11 a taxi came up the empty street, stopped on the wet asphalt. I was standing on the other side of the street, when the following picture presented itself:

Small, nimble, yet a bit wobbly on his feet, the figure of Heinz Ledig climbed out of the left side of the car. He mumbled something to the driver then paid him with deliberate drunken care. While this was going on, from the other side of the car a formless shadow appeared to extricate itself, a shadow that grew and grew and then took a few mincing steps. The two of them joined up in front of the car and, still carefully trying to maintain their balance, tried to make their way to our house door, while I, chuckling under my breath, followed.  An unforgettable scene now unfolded before me: these two happy-go-lucky brothers, attempting to coordinate their staggering steps by holding on to each other’s arms while their unequal upper bodies darted left and right, as if a wedge were trying to balance on its point.

I caught up with the two of them just inside the enormous archway that led through the apartment block and into the idyllic garden. With an obsequiousness meant to make up for their extreme lateness, Ledig now introduced the gigantic shadow, who from his lofty height smiled down at me. Then all three of us walked across the rainy pathway through the garden.

The condition of the two started to affect me with its unbelievable mirth. Wolfe’s soulful helplessness, which he stammeringly tried to explain, seemed something like an ironic plea addressed to the whole, great, vast inexhaustible world not to take it so seriously. There was nothing better in the world than wine, lots of wine, and then serendipitously to discover a lovely girl! Who cared about work or an appointment for an interview? While he kept stammering trying to make these points, his dark eyes kept making side glances toward me. But I kept thinking as we climbed up the stairs, “Oh, how Rexroth will be pleased, he’s really going to like these two!”

As I opened the door to our living room, something nearly imperceptible happened which I nonetheless will never forget:  my husband had sat down on the sofa on the furthest wall of the room across from the door. Upon hearing the commotion in the vestibule, he had expectantly turned his strikingly flashing eyes toward the entrance, and at the height at which one would expect to catch the eye of someone of normal height. The door opened–and his glance met Wolfe’s vest button! It was for me an unforgettable moment, as Rexroth’s astonished eyes climbed higher and higher, wandering ever higher, until finally, shortly before the top of the door frame, he reached the face of this extremely tall poet. Only then did Rex understand and stood up.

We had a joyful, wide-ranging discussion that evening (although not a word about literature or even about his own work!). In the glow of the lamplight, Thomas Wolfe, with his heavy head and disheveled hair falling in all directions, and now after drinking tea almost completely sobered up, spoke very little.   I had the impression that he was under some kind of internal urgency which forced him to observe everything very quickly. Nothing escaped him. It was as if his eyes were lurking behind a visor. Without one noticing, he took in with extreme acuity the small things in his purview, the tiniest gesture around him.  His ears seemed to pick up the smallest sound…Nonetheless he was not completely there. That took a while. Then suddenly with a start he came alive to the uttermost expanse of his vision. His eyes–a deep brown color with bits of amber colored sparks–widened, and he began to speak. Sometimes in English, sometimes in German, he stumbled along, then his speech resolved itself, lost the contours of the words and became mere sounds. Then he would start again, expand an impression, come up with a particularly witty word. We also had some wine, and began drinking some. We felt uplifted and comradly.  The discussion of literature was postponed until the next afternoon at a restaurant.

There was another surprise on this evening: I showed Wolfe a book that a friend had sent me, certainly the only copy available in Germany of “Cabins in the Laurel”. It was a collective study from the University of North Carolina about the poor inhabitants of the so-called highlands of this state. Wolfe grabbed the book from me with a shout. He held it against his enormous chest, stroked it, twirled around with it a few times, then finally sat down. He pounded on it with his powerful flat hand and cried “There it is inside, there is her name! See it?” And indeed, there it was:  The Pentlands. His mother’s family’s name. He was overwhelmingly excited about it, as if only this study, and not the books he had written, had made his family well known. He borrowed this book, and later I was told that for the next three days he carried it under his arm everywhere he went in Berlin.

At noon the following day I sat with Wolfe in a restaurant on Nollendorfplatz, and he conjured up many enlightening [illegible–ed.] and distressing details about his ideas and the efforts as well as the myths about his work. A few days later my husband didn’t show up for lunch as he had planned. He didn’t show up in the afternoon, either, nor in the evening. Just as I was getting worried that something had happened to him, about 11 at night, he finally appeared. “Guess who I met today?” he said. I rattled off several names. “Nope, not any of those people!” he cried, as if they were totally insignificant. “I met Thomas Wolfe! We talked about literature…..”

[last page missing–ed.]

The word from everyone is that this sounds a lot like Wolfe!  I am now incorporating his writing about his time in Berlin in 1936 into my chapter on Fr. Kern. This turned out to be his last visit to the city he loved. He died of tuberculosis in 1938.

The sorry saga of Maximiliano de Mexico

9 Nov

 

 

In all the expansive glory-seeking annals of European imperialism, no episode is as pathetic, as grasping at straws, as the attempt in the 1860s to extend European reach in the New World by installing an Emperor in Mexico.  Maximilian, younger brother of the Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph–or more correctly, His Imperial and Royal Highness Archduke and Prince Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria, Prince of Hungary, Bohemia and Croatia–was the sacrificial lamb, “reigning” as Emperor from 1864 until his inevitable execution in Santiago de Querétaro in 1867, the ostensible subject of Manet’s famous painting of 1868.

As a somewhat lazy student of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, I have always been a bit confused and perplexed by Maximilian’s story:  how and why was an Austrian prince chosen by the French to become the ruler of a land that they had no business invading, a country newly freed from the colonial rule of Bourbon Spain? In our recent travels, tidbits of Maximilian’s story kept popping up in unexpected places. When we arrived in Querétaro and learned (to our surprise, since my knowledge of the facts was still very vague) that it was in this very Mexican city that he was imprisoned and executed, I decided I needed to unravel this peculiar historical incident, if only for my own peace of mind.

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Miramare, Maximilian’s castle in Trieste. Described by Simon Winder as “a sort of Disneyish dream home”

Our first encounter with Maximilian–and his tragic bride Charlotte of Belgium, who became Carlota of Mexico–was in Trieste, site of Miramare, the villa he built when he was newly married and happy as a commander in the Austrian Navy.  Here is how Jan Morris, in her wonderful book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, describes it

In a way it was a little like a romantic idealization of the empire itself, a fairy-tale mock fortress on this southern shore, and when I see it out there I am reminded poignantly of the passing of all empires, those seductive illusions of permanence, those monuments of hubris which have sometimes been all evil, but have sometimes had much good to them.

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Maximilian and Charlotte on their wedding day, 1857. She was 17, he was 25.

Morris also gives a good description of Maximilian’s personality, one of the keys to his ill-fated decision to take up the mantel of Empire:  “He was a dreamy sort of man, somewhat liberal in his views and much influenced by his uncle the crazed romantic Ludwig I of Bavaria, so he was not at ease with the stiff autocracy of K u K” (Kaiserlich und Königlich, Imperial and Royal, a reference to the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

Here’s as much of a back story as I can figure out to the chain of events leading up to Maximilian and Carlota’s departure for Mexico:  the old royal houses of Europe led by French monarchists, disgruntled by revolutionary forces in their countries and miffed at the growing power of the United States, felt they needed a stronger foothold in the Americas. In a last gasp of imperialist solidarity,  the French turned to the oldest House in Europe, the Habsburgs–whose Spanish branch had ruled New Spain for three hundred years–as the most viable option for imposing a regime on Mexico. While the United States was preoccupied with their Civil War, the thinking went, and believing that there was considerable support among conservatives within Mexico for a return to monarchical rule after the rise of the Mexican leader Benito Juárez, French troops invaded Mexico in 1861.  While reluctant at first, Maximilian was reassured by Mexican monarchists and France’s Napoleon III that these troops would support him in establishing rule in the country.  So in April 1864, he and Carlota arrived in Mexico, to be hailed as Emperor and Emperor’s Consort.  They were crowned Emperor and Empress at the Cathedral in Mexico City.

 

The new royal family set up house and government offices in the Castillo, the castle built in the late 18th century located in Chapultepec Park in Mexico City. They brought full regalia and the accoutrements of royalty, and made up some fascinating new ones, such as an imperial banner incorporating the emblems of Mexico with Hapsburgian elements. We walked up the hill to the Castle, which is a well-visited tourist site in the park. The castle itself is, at least by European standards, somewhat modest, in a rather plain Neo-Classical style.  The rooms have been furnished with evidence of the imperial period, as well as subsequent occupancy by Juárez and Mexico’s near-dictator ruler Porfirio Diaz. Carlota’s rooms are particularly poignant, perhaps only because we now know of her fate.  It was, however, quite apparent here as it was in Querétaro, that the Mexicans are understandably reluctant to heroize this moment in their history, preferring instead to focus on their canon of revolutionaries, foremost among them Benito Juárez. The Castle has a full-wall mural honoring Juárez, and amusingly, displays as well a golden laurel wreath with which Juárez was crowned once the invaders were routed.  This is the only crown in the Castle’s interesting History Room displays.

 

 

The most fantastic aspect of the Chapultepec Castle is its elevation. The views from its balconies over Bosque de Chapultepec are as stunning today as they were in the 1860s. This park in the center of Mexico City, off of the Paseo de Reforma–a street that was implemented under Maximilian’s direction–is one of the most magnificent parks in the world.

 

As the story of the doomed Second Mexican Empire progressed, warning signs of failure started to appear almost immediately.  The royal couple took their duties seriously, and were appalled at the level of poverty and inequality seen across the country. Maximilian ended child labor and tried to establish schools for the poor, while Carlota toured as far as the Yucután and sponsored charities to improve conditions for children.  The Emperor turned out to be far too liberal for the Mexican conservatives that had brought him to the country; their idea of Empire was to maintain the status quo of rich landowners and their fiefdoms. When the American Civil War ended and Napoleon III withdrew his troops from Mexico, having apparently lost interest in the idea of conquest, Maximilian’s fate was sealed.

 

 

 

On a brilliant Sunday morning, we walked from our apartment on Calle Damian Carmona to Cerro de las Campanas, which is now on the campus of the University of Querétaro. The place is now a pleasant park, and families were enjoying the ice cream vendors, and finding out that the rocks really do ring when struck.

The only memorial in the entire city to the Maximilian moment in the city’s history is a small chapel erected in the 1890s on the site where he and his generals faced the firing squad. A small museum above this site, which we assumed would focus on the story of the Empire, gave only passing mention to this era, emphasizing instead the story of Mexican Independence and Revolution(s). The pinnacle of the Hill, which provides a nice view over the city, is dominated by this enormous, and to my mind particularly unattractive, statue of the great hero, Benito Juárez. As it should be, I suppose, although I wish the public sculptures of Juárez were up to the aesthetic quality of the Mexican Muralists’ works all over the country.

Our entrepreneurial Yankee minds were thinking that the Queretarans had missed a selling point for tourists by not providing a “Maximilian Tour” to cash in on these historic monuments, but then we realized that the great virtue of Querétaro is that it is not at all geared for foreign tourists–no one in the tourist office spoke English or any other language other than Spanish, and there were no tourist maps published in English. This made the town blissfully free of tourist busses. This non-interest in becoming a tourist mecca was also what we liked about Trieste, that other town with traces of Maximiliana.

As we went up the long steep hill to the Castillo in Chapultepec Park, I saw one of the only cats we saw outside in all of Mexico.   Carlota apparently liked cats, too.

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Trotsky in Coyoacán

4 Nov

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In the last 30 years we are surely the only Americans  who have visited the charming “village” of Coyoacán, Mexico–now engulfed by Mexico City spread–without seeing a single Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera site!  This was not entirely by choice–we went on a Friday, which was our first mistake, and the line to get into Frida’s house was ridiculously long. Add to that my impatience with the obsessive marketing of all things Frida in the last few years, and there was not much persuasion needed to convince me to skip the whole journey to the shrines. This is not to say that I don’t admire her artwork, and her story is sensational–I just can’t bear the kitschifying of her and her art. But that’s a theme for another blog!

What we DID head to see, and first up, was the Museo de la Casa Leon Trotsky. This is the home where exiled Communist leader Leon Trotsky, after years of exile in various countries fleeing Stalin’s brutal hand, lived 1939-40 until he was assassinated by a Stalinist operative. (Stalin had already killed just about everybody else associated with Trotsky, including his son and his first wife.) His murder by ice axe took place in this very house, in the study that has been preserved exactly as it was at the time of his death.  During his time in Mexico, he was an active participant in the heady intellectual and cultural life surrounding the Mexican Muralists and others drawn to revolutionary thought and action so significant in the 1930s and 1940s throughout Latin America and the United States.

The house as a museum is run by a private board headed by Trotsky’s grandson Esteban Volkow. Constantly in need of funds, the displays are sometimes cheesy, with amateurish labels and less than consistent displays. The emphasis is always on Trotsky’s very fruitful time in Mexico (he wrote some of his best books there), so there are many photos of him with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (Trotsky lived in their Blue House for many months, and is said to have had an affair with Frida), as well as an intriguing timeline of “revolutionary” events throughout Trotsky’s life. This display even included a photograph of the painter David Siqueiros in jail for his part in an earlier unsuccessful attempt on Trotsky’s life. The bookstore contained all the books in Spanish one would find at a socialist bookshop, on the likes of Rosa Luxemburg and Gramsci.  I felt like I did back in my time running with the YSA crowd in Portland, Oregon, only as if our activities were taking place in Spanish.

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The famous muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros was directly involved in the earlier assassination attempt on Trotsky, and served some time in jail. The great art historian Meyer Schapiro wrote a scathing indictment of Siqueiros about his part in this action.

Despite some museological “failings”, the impact of being on the grounds and in Trotsky’s house, surrounded by the objects of his daily life while in Coyoacán, was immediate and intense.  If only to have such a vivid document of material culture in 1940s Mexico, a glimpse at the kitchen, dining room, and even the bathroom I found fascinating. All those simply decorated dishes, all those beautiful wooden doors!

And then there was the study, with the desk still holding Trotsky’s glasses and the papers he had been working on when the Spanish-born Soviet agent Ramón Mercader, posing as one of Trotsky’s followers, entered the room and struck him in the head with an ice axe. I found this a very moving experience, seeing all his books and his bed and cane.  And then on the grounds, near Trotsky’s chicken coops and flowering trees, is his grave. His long-suffering wife Natalia Sedova, who lived into the 1960s, is also buried there.

Once we left La Casa Trotsky, we headed down to the Plaza Hidalgo in the middle of town, through Coyoacán’s magnificently authentic mercado. Ironically, having just come from the home of a revolutionary leader, Coyoacán, once a sleepy little artists’ community, is now one of the priciest places to live in Mexico City. As the waiter told us at the lovely little restaurant Moheli where we had lunch, its street, Avenida Francisco Sosa, is “like the Beverly Hills of Mexico.”  That street is indeed lined with venerable, newly renovated, estates built around 18th-century houses.

We watched dancers practicing flamenco steps on the elegant plaza–with Coyote fountain (Coyoacán means “place of the coyotes”)–and stepped into the pleasing interior of the town’s central Franciscan church, San Juan Bautista. Finally, instead of making it to the Rivera/Kahlo studio, we walked to the Nacional de La Acuarela , a charming display of the history of Mexican watercolors collected and donated by the artist Alfredo Guati Rojo.  We then made a torturous Uber journey back to La Condesa through Mexico City’s Friday night traffic. I would definitely advise people to make the journey to this wonderful village on any day but Friday or Saturday!

While the town is now a far cry from its lazy days of the 1940s, one can still get a bit of a sense of how it must have been when Trotsky was there.  The old street peddlers are still there, and the market place is as it must have been then.  If we had been game to elbow our way through the Rivera/Kahlo sites, I’m sure that we would have an even better feeling for that revolutionarily buzzing moment when Mexico seemed set for a new intellectual and cultural life.

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A honey vendor on Plaza Hidalgo

Don’t go to the Zocalo on Saturday!

23 Oct

 

 

Oh, my, it’s been so long since I’ve blogged anything!  On the one hand this is a good sign, because it means we’ve been so busy having adventures that I haven’t had time to write about them! On the other hand, it means I’ve been so busy putting up shares on Facebook and wasting time in other ways that I have just been lazy about writing.  We have been in Mexico for three weeks now. We started in Ajijic, then travelled by bus to Queretaro–an authentically Mexican town unspoiled by mass tourism that I want to write about!–where we made a side trip to San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato, and are now in Mexico City.  I will get back to writing about these places, but our day at the Zocalo was so emblematic of present-day Mexico City that I just need to write all of it down.

First of all, we are staying in La Condesa, a rather upscale neighborhood that now seems to be Hipster Central, filled with cafes, artsy boutiques, and organic food. We had originally booked a place on AirBnB on Avenida Amsterdam–a gloriously elegant street with many intact and recently renovated 1930s buildings–but that apartment had a cave in (literally: the bathroom above fell in to the kitchen below!). Our lovely young hostess Xanath offered us instead this apartment on Calle Culiacan. Thoughtfully decorated and renovated, its only drawback is being on the second floor–a bit of a problem for G’s COPD lungs, but he has adjusted well. The street noise is minimal, and although the back bedroom wall is right up against another apartment, the noise during the week has stopped after 10 pm.

So let’s get to our Saturday, and our plan to go to the city’s main square, the center of Old Mexico, the Zocalo.  On Friday night, we had battled our way from Coyoacan through the city’s horrendous traffic–the poor Uber driver!–having forgotten that it was the beginning of the weekend, so the traffic would be even worse than usual.  Saturday morning, George informed me that the people in the apartment on the other side of the wall had stayed up ALL NIGHT talking and celebrating.  Thank God George took the back bedroom–he can sleep through that kind of thing, I cannot.  Add to this the fact that we are both having the turistas now–Travellers’ Diarrhea–George worse than me, so we’re sleeping fitfully.  But we decided to carry on with plans, not having a clue what was going on at the Zocalo that day, but intent on staying on some kind of schedule of “must sees” in the city–always a mistake for travellers who are experienced enough to know that it’s the serendipitous aspects of travel rather than the “must sees” that are important.  But we did want to see the Templo Mayor, and were excited at the prospect of seeing the very first printing press in the Americas in La Casa de la Primera Imprenta, which was right across from the Palacio Nacional.

But before we got going, we heard a loud bang outside–and then the electricity went out in the whole neighborhood. This meant that we couldn’t shower nor–in our case, most urgently–flush the toilets.  Remember the turistas? Yeah, that part….To our utter amazement, as our hostess was telling us that it would take many hours for the electricity to come back on–it came back on!  A transformer had blown, but apparently Mexican repair services were right on the problem. Everyone was surprised. We were all trying to figure out what we would do if there was no electricity for days….Mexicans do seem to take these things in stride, however.

We have been using Uber to get around–it’s worked like a charm and isn’t that expensive, and much more trustworthy than Mexican taxi drivers–boy, do they have a bad reputation, even among the Mexicans!  Our Uber driver this time was a loquacious one, assuming that we understood completely what he was telling us in Spanish. As we got close to the Zocalo, the crowds and the traffic even surprised our old veteran driver. But he got us there.  While we worked our way over to the enormous Cathedral, it became obvious that some enormous event was taking place on the plaza: along with the usual assortment of vendors, dancers, Aztec healers, and policemen, there were absolute swarms of people and tents and colorful floats. Apparently it was a parade having something to do with Dia de los Muertos festivities, but we only learned later that this event has only been held for two years, and has something to do with scenes that appeared in a James Bond movie! (Look it up on YouTube! It’s true!)

We had no idea!  I truly have never been part of such a huge stream of people who just kept coming and coming and coming–not even Mardi Gras had so many raucous, noisy and jostling crowds.  The photos above of those imaginary creatures floating above people’s heads is as close as we got to seeing anything of the parade, or anything of the Zocalo plaza itself.  We were able to come around the side of the Cathedral, where the traditional host of street vendors and dancers were arrayed, in less of a crowd.

By this time, I was in desperate need of a bathroom–nowhere to be seen. We worked our way along the street where a policeman said we might find a bathroom and found none. Then I saw a sign that said “Museo.” Great, a museum is bound to have a bathroom, and we’re always curious to visit any museum we can.  We went in. It was a building run by UNAM, presenting a kind of promotional story about the history of Mexico’s great university system, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.  The woman at the counter was not going to let us in, even when we agreed to pay the 20 pesos admission. Then one of the curators arrived to tell us there was a little music presentation happening–she spoke English–that we could attend, to which we said fine–anything to get to the bathroom!

And so we left the chaos of the Zocalo, and entered this beautiful 18th-century building, and ended up sitting in a room for an hour listening to earnest university music students playing a lovely bit of afternoon classical music. Through the windows, we could hear the pounding of the drums from the Aztec dancers, and the noise from the parade as well. But it was a delightful respite, and totally unexpected. One thing we found perplexing, and perhaps a very Mexican thing to do:  The program they handed us gave us the names of the composers and the works played, but not the performers’ names. We mentioned this to the organizers at the end of the performance, and they looked surprised; so they asked one of the professors who the performers were, and they told us their first names!  Is it a Yankee thing to expect recognition for performances? Just an interesting little observation.

By this time it was about 1:30, and we needed to eat, despite our delicate tummies. We found the old-fashioned restaurant recommended by our hostess, El Cardenal, and had an interesting if relatively uninspiring meal, then headed out in hopes of finding the Aztec Temple and then the home of the first printing press.  We got to the tremendously exciting site of Templo Mayor, the remains of which were uncovered across from the immense Cathedral when doing construction for the subway in the 1970s.  This is the place where Cortez probably met Montezuma, and it is tinglingly overwhelming, and fantastically immediate. There’s an excellent museum that displays more of their incredible finds, and we were on our way there, when things got hairy.

Remember the turistas? Yep, they struck again.  So we decided we would have to forego the Temple’s Museum, and try to make a dash to the Casa with the printing press, which is what we really wanted to see in any case.

Finding a public WC–strategically placed all over downtown, with a nice matron who for 5 pesos hands you some TP–we then made the error of going back TOWARDS the crowds that were either 1) coming from the parade; or 2) heading for the Saturday markets which, from the full-on shouting taking place from every vendor, must be a regular weekend event. We were swept along in this seemingly endless stream of people. When we got to the Casa–it was closed for renovation!   This fact had not been mentioned in any guide or online site we consulted, although it was obvious this had been the situation for a while.

What to do now?  Feeling a bit queasy already, but determined to accomplish something on this day, we decided to try for the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso–site of some of the earliest murals of the group that became so famous as the Mexican Muralist movement.  This again pushed us back into the crowds, which had not subsided one bit in all this time.  Going at a glacial pace was the only way to proceed, and our turn toward the Colegio placed us on five blocks of unrelenting and deafening spruiking (the Aussie word for street vendors’ calling for customers) and the continuous crush of people.  What was so astonishing to us, as we confronted this maelstrom of humanity and noise, was that the Mexicans seemed completely composed and patient, as if this were perfectly normal. No aggression, no pushing, no bad behavior.  Hats off to these people!  I was having a nervous breakdown! Honestly, I don’t know of any time when I have been in such a crowd of people for so prolonged a period, with a constant stream of humans coming both ways.

We did finally get to San Ildefonso, an old Jesuit college that was one of the first places to commission muralists to paint its walls (in 1922-24). While we weren’t able to see the famous Diego Rivera room–it had another exhibition going on–we did get to record several of the very dark and moving images of José Clemente Orozco, and the less polemical murals by Fernando Leal and Jean Charlot.  So at last, we accomplished one tourist must-see feat!

Getting back to our apartment was another trial for our poor Uber driver–the only time we had to wait a long time for one to get to us–and again, he was one who wanted to talk to us about the failings of the government and the need of humanity to be kinder to each other, all the while assuming that we understood everything he was saying in Spanish.  What I did understand was that Mexican traffic and Mexican crowds are almost always this overwhelming around the Zocalo, although this particular Saturday was especially brutal.

By the time we got back to La Condesa,  we were filled with nervous exhaustion and shaky digestion. But it gave us a real glimpse into life in Mexico City and taught us some things: 1) always check what’s going on at the Zocalo before heading off; 2) be prepared for enormous bodies of human beings no matter where or when in this city; and 3) traffic in the city is impossible.  But we also learned that the Mexican people are tops: kind, humane, helpful, and infinitely patient.  And resourceful! I’ll finish with two images of street vendors, improvising to present their wares: one a woman making esquite, a corn dish, on top of a shopping cart and over a can with a butane burner; the other one of the many traditional “healers” on the Zocalo performing his smoking and laying of hands on a person asking for help.

What an amazing place is Mexico City!

Travelling again!

5 Oct

lylelookingatlouis_day4_aug2018

The photo above is only one of the reasons we’re off again on peregrinations: a new grandson!  Here we see siblings meeting each other for the first time. So happy that Mama Dottie was able to take such a perfect picture of Lyle and new brother Louis Seely Boeck.

UPDATE:  I wrote that paragraph at the end of August, before we had left for our drive LA-Denver. It’s now the beginning of October, and we spent a month in Denver with the kiddos (and stayed at our friends the Redifers’ house–thanks for offering us a bit of space, Cyndy!). We were SO busy being grandparents that I never had time to get back to this writing.  To sum up our Denver stay:  baby has club feet, so we spent each Monday at the EXCELLENT Anschutz Center Children’s Hospital, where baby Louis had his casts changed, something he will have done for several weeks more, then a tiny surgical procedure, then years of bars and braces on his little feet.  The good news: this birth defect is entirely reparable, and Max & Dottie are very grateful that they have such good care available to them in their own town.  Meanwhile we also spent several rewarding if exhausting hours entertaining an extremely loquacious and active two-and-a-half-year old. Like all two-year-olds, it seems, he adores big machines, so finding a digger to watch was the highlight of his visit with Baba.

So where are we now?  We are once again on the road! (Well, actually in the air for this latest leg.) One month in Mexico, then back to stay in Oakhurst near Yosemite for several months at my sister’s house while they go travelling. What we’re doing after Christmas is still a bit up in the air–probably still in Oakhurst, with jaunts elsewhere in California.  Then two-three months in Europe, doing some research on my “Three German Women” book, thanks to the graciousness of our friends Wolfgang and Nora, and the amazing resources available on HomeAway and AirBnb.

For now:  we are briefly back in Ajijic, Mexico, where we spent many weeks last year. (See our fairly comprehensive blogs about Ajijic last year, archived in March & April 2017).  The weather is fine, G. is having problems with COPD at this altitude, we’re staying in a big rambling house that is–you guessed it, as always–right next door to a construction site!  More Americans than ever here–a result of the Trump factor in some cases, and a lot of romantic notions for people our age seeking a cheaper, less stressful lifestyle.  Everyone still seems to be over 55 or 80, and lots of gated communities. The hills behind are gloriously green, with yellow bushes interspersed, as they were not when we were last here.  So far I have seen very few birds worth mentioning but lots of gorgeous butterflies, and the Carretera–the main road into Guadalajara–is still treacherous to cross.  We will go on to Queretaro on Monday, and will finally meet my cousin and his family, and stay in a lovely casita in the historical district. Hopefully, we will also get to visit Guanajuato–where my cousin’s brilliant daughter is at the university–and even San Miguel de Allende.  Then we are off to Mexico City for two weeks–if G’s lungs can stand it. We are so looking forward to visiting Mexico’s magnificent museums, but unlike the last time I was in the city FIFTY YEARS AGO (!), we are now old enough to have to worry about things like air quality, altitude and noise.

Well, that’s a quick summary of what we’re up to now. Alas, so far I have only seen two cats in Ajijic, both of them while attending a meeting, so I couldn’t get a photo of them.  But word is our landlady in Queretaro has cats!  So I promise to conclude with a cat pic in our next entry!  Oh, there’s a gato in the graffiti:

grafitti_ajijic_oct2018

 

How broken will our lives be?

21 Jul

brokenlives_book

As part of my “regimen” of reading to acquire some historical context for my “Three German Women” project, I am now reading Jarausch’s Broken Lives:  How Ordinary Germans Experienced the 20th Century.  While Jarausch focusses on the generation born in the 1920s and only one of my women (Maria) was born in 1920, the stories told by a cross-section of ordinary Germans who grew up in this era do provide some illuminating insights into a time that many of us have too quickly dumped into some “that was then and we know how it turned out for those Nazis” bin, giving little thought to what it was like to grow up in such a tumultuous atmosphere.  He depends on many memoirs and diaries, both published and unpublished, as well as interviews with those still living (their memories, of course, colored by time and hindsight). While I am still focussing on the Weimar years and through World War II, Jarausch is particularly interested in documenting how Germany and the German people, both East and West, overcame the total destruction of their cities and their society and rebuilt so successfully after the war. This fact is another aspect that we as “victors” sometimes gloss over: despite all of the help given by the Allies for reconstruction, it was not necessarily a given that Germany and Austria would become so prosperous, so functional that they are now major players in the global economy and culture.

For my purposes, the book’s greatest strength is in emphasizing what I want to highlight:  that while larger political upheavals were taking place, most ordinary people, and especially young people, were simply living their lives–falling in love, getting jobs, finding enough to eat, going to concerts–without much thought about–or participation in–the conquest of their culture by fascism or, later, by Soviet ideologies.  As one informant writes of being an adolescent in the 1930s,  “The years of my apprenticeship in Leipzig were on the whole quite happy. I hardly paid any attention to politics.” (p. 89)  Sound familiar?

As for the commonly-heard statement, “why didn’t everyone protest against Hitler?” Jarausch presents some harrowing first-hand accounts, and concludes : “The memoirs show that it took exceptional insight and courage to remain aloof, refuse to comply, or actively resist the twisted universe of the Third Reich, since the sanctions were lethal.” (p. 96) Even in those families that were politically aware, Jewish, and/or Communist, peer pressure, for example, to be part of Hitler Youth triumphed over any objections parents might have. The author also finds ample evidence in these memoirs of how EXCITING all of these new actions could be, especially for German youth from rural areas, who for the first time met–through country-wide sporting events and Nazi-organized activities–other young people, all sharing this idea of “making Germany great again” after the shame of losing the Great War and the humiliation of the punitive Versailles Treaty.

And in the beginning, Hitler’s policies DID greatly improve the lives of ordinary Germans: autobahns, free health care, sponsored outings in the fresh air, recognition for healthy living, and guaranteed employment for those who followed the rules.  But when sanctions grew against Jews, when trade unionists were arrested, when militaristic propaganda took over the schools’ curriculum, not having paid attention led to the realization that they were heading toward a war that very few had anticipated.

Much has been written about the fact that after the debacle of the Second World War, the deprivations of the post-War years, the efforts at “de-Nazification”, few Germans have been willing to, as Jarausch writes, “confront their personal responsibility and commit themselves to doing active penance.”  This fact, too, I see as a normal human reaction: one remembers the good stuff, and has a hard time owning up to one’s complicity in evil.  In the sections of the book on the post-War years, both in the GDR (East Germany) and the FRD (West Germany), the memoirists focus primarily on how hard they worked to gain economic stability and eventually, material prosperity. Ideology seldom plays a major role in everyday life, or at least not in an obvious way.

Given that I have been reading this during weeks when the news in the U.S., as well as in other countries around the world, is incomprehensibly terrifying, as we endure a mentally unhinged, probably traitorous, American president, and we watch in helplessness at the rise of autocratic leaders in previously democratic nations,  all of these stories give me pause.  I will not make the simplistic comparison of Hitler and Trump–too many differences, despite some alarming similarities.  But I am struck by reading of the consequences of not paying attention to what is happening on a grander scale as we live our daily, usually banal, lives, and certainly the consequences of not learning from the (very recent!) past.

As Jarausch writes at the end of his worthy book, “[h]eeding the lessons of experience and memory has transformed many Germans into sincere democrats and pacifists who want to prevent a recurrence of earlier horrors.” Will we–our children and grandchildren–be able to prevent more broken lives by learning from the past? So I conclude by once again posting the signs of fascism. The American trajectory may follow different paths determined by different banalities, but the end results may be the same.

fascism_signs_2004