Cats, artistic and living, part II

3 Aug

In our last segment, we were just leaving Barcelona for Greece–home to more cats than I imagined could ever survive in the urban wilds!

They were everywhere–in the ruins of the Roman Agora, on the Acropolis, at bus stops, and by the hordes at every restaurant we went to. The Greeks seem to have an accepting attitude about them, neither condemning them nor particularly nurturing them (a lot of people do feed them), but just considering them part of the environment. I have written about the street cats before, saying that I did feel a bit uncomfortable about the sheer numbers of them and so many of that seemed malnourished and uncared for.
But there are also people who do care for them, and many Greeks have pampered indoor cats, too.


Evy’s very pampered indoor cat.

For a country now so overrun with cats, I found it interesting that so little ancient art included any feline imagery at all. There is, of course, the famous Lion’s Gate at Mycenae, and some lions in some friezes and 8th-century and Byzantine objects, but no cats of the domestic sort that I could find.  Were there no house cats in ancient Greece? There must have been, given that Egypt had so many.

Croatia was filled with felines, too, and our stay in Mlini on the Dubrovnik Riviera included resident house cats as well as those on the street. And I couldn’t help but be amused that at the rather intimidating border crossing into Montenegro (we were forced to turn around and go back for auto rental papers), the stern border guard’s demeanor was somewhat softened by the appearance of the officer’s champion mouser. That’s her, the white one with orange and black spots, below basking in the sun as we turned our car around.

In Montenegro we found in its lovely bayside walled city of Kotor Venetian-inspired architecture and sculpture as well as the Venetian-inspired Cats’ Museum about which I have already written (see my entry for April 13). And so many cat-themed objets for sale in its tony, upscale shops!

Other artistic objects in Croatia were a little thin on feline themes, except for all those lions in churches in Split and elsewhere. But I loved this frock in a Rijeka shop window!

From Zadar, we travelled on up the Croatian cost to that most multicultural town, Trieste. The town was one of our favorite places, as you can tell by my previous blog entry (see May 2). Some local cats, some street animals, but only a few feline-themed art pieces.

Right to the south of Trieste is the old Venetian outpost of Muggia, and as a Venetian product, the Lion of Saint Mark figures in much of the town’s symbolic imagery. When depicted with closed book and sword, as seen on the side of the Muggia Town Hall, it was a sign of war, a warning to aspiring conquerors that Venice would come to its rescue if attacked. Other lions in town are more welcoming, with open book and no sword.

Our weeks in Ljubljana, back in Vienna, and then in Germany were lovely, but yielded little in the way of cat imagery. (Except for this one bit of hilarious graffiti in Ljubljana’s Tivoli Gardens–which seems appropriate for our experience of that young and breezy town)



But I will end this account with our Toronto friends, all of whom have cats of various shapes and sizes. Welcome back to North America!

I just had to figure out a way to organize all these images of cats! I suppose I could write more ancillary text focussing on some cultural aspect related to the place and the context in which I encountered each of these animals and/or objects, but for now I’ll just hope that some of you will enjoy looking at all of them!

Cats, artistic and living, part I.

26 Jul


As most of you who followed our travel blog will know, one of my favorite photographic subjects on this trip was cats. I took photos not only of real cats that we encountered everywhere, but also of cats found in artworks in museums. Sometimes I stretched the definition of “cat” to include lions, so many of which appear in heraldry, ancient art, and monarchical images. So I have ended up with LOTS of felines!  It is most interesting, I think, to present these images by location, commenting on what they might tell us about the place:


In the city that inspired Eliot’s famous Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the source for the musical Cats, we saw, surprisingly, no street cats at all. This may be because we were in such a ritzy part of town and we didn’t go out late at night. We did find lots of sculptural lions, though–the one above is in the foyer of the British Museum, an ancient one and part of Lord Elgin’s pillaging of the Parthenon–and the National Gallery was filled with some marvelous painted examples. I love Pinturicchio’s cat, playing with Penelope’s yarn.


When we arrived at our lovely garden house in Prenzlauer Berg, we were greeted almost immediately by one of the neighbor’s cats, Pepe. Why are orange cats so likely to be so friendly?  Later he was joined by his companion Timmy, for wrestling matches on the lawn. Having them cavort made us feel so at home! And they made it possible for us to meet all of our sweet neighbors.

Artistically, we were lucky to find an exhibition at Die Brücke Museum of Max Kaus, a very interesting if little known Berlin artist, who often painted images of cats along with his wife. Max Beckmann was also a cat lover, apparently, from the number of them that appear in his intense paintings and prints. And for sweetness verging on kitsch, the Märchenbrunnen–the fairy-tale fountain–in the Volkspark Friedrichshain consists of endearing sculptures representing famous fairy tale figures, including this cat in the statue of Red Rose (Dornröschen).

While in Berlin, we made a trip to Danzig and region, my grandfather’s West Prussian birthplace. There we spotted another type of cat amid the fascinating old Mennonite houses–almost like Norwegian Forest cats. Here’s one lounging on a house stoop in my grandfather’s village.




We had some delightful interactions with real cats during our three-month stay in Vienna, all of them indoors. We never saw a cat on the street, Vienna being the tidy place that it is!  But our apartment building in Sigmundsgasse had two charming occupants who made themselves right at home in Nora’s apartment, even though they officially lived across the hall. These two were Kapidu and Puki, who often followed us up the stairs in hopes of receiving a little offering for their company. We were happy to oblige.

We also found cats in the unlikeliest places, including the gorgeous Lilith, effusive mistress of the Johannes Farber Gallery, and a sleeping Lucy at a country inn in the Kamptal. She never budged from her pillow on the bench the entire time we were there.

We were at the country inn where Lucy resides with our most enthusiastic cat fan, Heidi, Nora’s sister. After years working for Dior in Paris and in Asia, she returned to Vienna and opened a shop of cat objets d’art. Her Biedermeier apartment is filled with all manner of cats,  in the live form of the very princely Schatzi, and in artworks galore, most of them cat-oriented.

As a farewell present, Heidi gave us one of her many objects, a little tin toy of a cat with a baby pram. It’s adorable! heidistincat

I looked in vain for painted images of cats at the Kunsthistorisches. Not even the Spanish paintings had any! (If anyone has found a cat in a painting at the KHM, please let me know!) A host of cats appeared, of course, in the KHM’s superb Egyptian collections, which allowed me to spend more time in those rooms than I normally do–very enlightening. If in Vienna, be sure to look at the ancient rooms of the

Kunsthistorisches as well as in the galleries with the Bruegels and Velasquezes. A few genre paintings at the

Wien Museum included a few frisky kittens in some Biedermeier paintings, and a few glimpses of felines appeared in some Albertina offerings, but the only contemporary cat objects I saw were in shop windows.


We began to see street cats in Lisbon, although most of them in the Bairro Alto, the old district where we stayed, sat precariously on balconies or slept in shop windows.

The cats we saw here were of all colors and sizes. Most of them, even the ones in the street, looked fairly healthy and well-fed.

Lisbon is the city of magnificent tiles, so it is no surprise that the most delightful, the most rambunctious, images of cats we saw here were in some of the remarkable tiled murals in the gardens of the city.  First were the lovely tile friezes surrounding a pond in the Jardim Botánico Tropical in Belem–tigers and lions, but no domestic cats (although we did see some ferals here, too). Nothing, however, can beat the amazing Palacio dos Marquesas da Fronteira, still inhabited by the original family, with a garden overflowing with the most fanciful tiles from the 17th and 18th centuries,  showing cats doing all kinds of comical things, sometimes with monkeys. I still haven’t gotten any satisfactory answer about what the “iconography” was meant to impart, but they are just so delightful one doesn’t really care–and perhaps that’s the point of them.

Lisbon’s cultural pride and joy is the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum of Art, an absolutely splendid collection of artworks, both Western and Middle Eastern. But there were other cats in other museums in the city, too, and carved lions everywhere.


Finally, the university town of Coimbra offered delightful renditions on the side of its lovely Cathedral. In all, the cats of Lisbon were, like the city and the country itself, dignified and fanciful at the same time.



Oddly, we saw no street cats in Poblenou, the section of Barcelona where we stayed, although others told us that Spain–perhaps in other cities–was overrun with ferals. We did get to meet Annie Graul’s cats, and I assume other Spaniards have house cats, too.


Cats in paintings were rather thin on the ground as well, but oh, those lions in the Romanesque sculptures!  Not only in Barcelona, but in Girona as well.

Before entering into true cat land–Greece!–I think I will pause here, and continue with our feline meanderings in the next entry.  You get the idea, though! Taking images of cats kept me occupied and involved–kind of like Pokemon Go, I guess–and now I have to do something creative with all of them!

My Proust Questionnaire

9 Jul


The Proust Questionnaire has its origins in a parlor game popularized (though not devised) by Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that, in answering these questions, an individual reveals his or her true nature. Here is the basic Proust Questionnaire.

1.What is your idea of perfect happiness?

    A peaceful, quiet place to live, within walking distance of a museum

2.What is your greatest fear?

   You mean other than death? Penury

3.What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?


4.What is the trait you most deplore in others?


5.Which living person do you most admire?

   Those saints who look after old people and really care about them

6.What is your greatest extravagance?

      Books and earrings

7.What is your current state of mind?


8.What do you consider the most overrated virtue?


9.On what occasion do you lie?

      When I don’t want to visit someone

10.What do you most dislike about your appearance?

     My legs–that’s where all my weight is, and they’re too short

11.Which living person do you most despise?

    President of the NRA

12.What is the quality you most like in a man?


13.What is the quality you most like in a woman?


14.Which words or phrases do you most overuse?


15.What or who is the greatest love of your life?

    Anybody who knows me knows who that is!

16.When and where were you happiest?

    When the Dodgers won the World Series with Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale pitching. I was 13.

17.Which talent would you most like to have?

     Painting like Mary Cassatt

18.If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

     I wish I had a better sense of rhythm and could dance

19.What do you consider your greatest achievement?

     Learning another language

20.If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

     A revolutionary like Rosa Luxemburg, but with a more positive outcome

21.Where would you most like to live?

        Half of the year in Vienna, half of the year in Santa Barbara, CA

22.What is your most treasured possession?

        My great aunt’s hand-painted vase from 1916

23.What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

         Not being sober

24.What is your favorite occupation?

        Going to art museums

25.What is your most marked characteristic?


Black Lives Matter

8 Jul

When we lived in New Orleans in the 1980s, we first moved in to the back house of what had been a plantation mansion. It occurs to me now that this house was probably the servants’ quarters, so where the house slaves lived. The owner was one Wendell T. Dyer, a completely unreconstructed Southerner of the old stripe, who had “devoted” black housekeepers and who believed that women weren’t as intellectual as men! He was a complete gentleman to us, but we soon felt so uncomfortable living there that we moved to a shotgun house on a one-block street where each house had a Gothic romance kind of story behind its inhabitants. A few weeks later, while walking to the bank to get money to go to my father’s funeral, my 2-year-old in tow, I was robbed at gunpoint by a 16-year-old black kid. When the police came to take my statement, there standing on the street corner was Wendell’s black housekeeper. She was so dismayed to hear that the robber had been a black teenager. When Wendell heard about it, he acted like his prejudices were vindicated: “see what I mean about the Negro in this city?” he said. To which I replied, “And if it had been a white teenager, which it could easily have been, would you then expect me to walk on the other side of the street every time I saw a white teen coming toward me?” He did not like that response. And when I told him that the first house I had gone to for some support and comfort was that of our black neighbors–both counselors and teachers–he just walked away from me, shaking his head at the idiocy of Yankees. The cops who came to take my statement, by the way, were both black.
I really had hoped that now, 30 years later, these kind of attitudes about black youth would have changed. But the police response to young black men seems to have deteriorated. What can we do as white people to change this horrific system?

Things I learned in Europe

4 Jul



A tableau at Charlottenburg, Berlin. Consider the implications of the pose.


Now that we have been home for a little while, I’m pondering what lessons I may have learned, what experiences we had on our long journey. Here are some random thoughts:


**First and foremost, Anthony Bourdain was right:  “In a scary, cruel world: people are pretty nice everywhere.” Except for a very few instances, we had nothing but positive experiences meeting people everywhere we went. Even when we had no idea how to speak the language and the other people spoke little or no English, everyone was willing to help us find our way, and to share smiles and stories.

**Mass transit is sometimes frustrating and one often needs patience to decipher the schedules and routes, but European transit systems are the way to go!  I haven’t driven a car in 10 months!  Vienna’s system was excellent, as was London’s (believe it or not!); Berlin’s was predictably take-it-or-leave-it but efficient; Lisbon’s was quaint yet shabby


Lisbon’s famous trams

and buses were horrible; Barcelona’s was good but theft-ridden; Athens had reliable subways; Trieste’s busses were fun; and the Balkans had various degrees of bus and tram service, too.







Our rental car in Berlin

**European roads are now completely modern, and the freeways and highways easier to drive on than most American roads now. While I didn’t drive a car at all in Europe, George did, and we rented cars several times. Auto rental services are now extremely competitive, so the prices are very good when booked on-line. We rented a car for one week, and going one way, from Zagreb to Dubrovnik, for about €120.

**I really am a wuss about cold weather–I don’t know if  I could have endured an entire winter in Vienna. Lisbon had the best weather, and we were there in its coldest and rainiest month! Barcelona was colder in February than we had expected but still gloriously sunny on many days, and March in Athens and on Andros Island was cool and VERY windy, not yet warm enough to dip into the Aegean. April and May in the Balkans and Trieste was a QUITE changeable period, with the Bora (the famous Adriatic winds) appearing rather fiercely a few times, and then an unfortunate week of SNOW in Slovenia! Climate change is having an impact.

**Never do business with friends, or if you do, get everything in writing from the start, so there are no misunderstandings.

**I am totally dependent on cyberspace. The internet and the cyber universe have changed everything about the entire world, and nowhere more dramatically than in the possibilities they offer for those who are travelling; globalization is the result. Not only were we able to do all our business online from anywhere we were staying that had WiFi, but Skype and Google Hangouts made it possible for us to talk to and see family–including a brand new baby grandson!–while sitting in an apartment in Slovenia or at a restaurant in Gdansk.

**I learned a lot about how Europeans really live in their homes, thanks to the internet. For one of the great innovations of the internet made such a long trip possible. That is, of course, the development of accommodation sites, AirBnB, HomeAway, and We found a perfect tenant for our house through SabbaticalHomes–the best site for finding academic long-term rentals–and we found great apartments through AirBnB and HomeAway. One needs to be careful with these sites, especially AirBnB, to make sure you ask all the right questions, e.g., WHAT FLOOR IS THE APARTMENT ON? More than once, we ended up having to schlep our bags up 5 flights of stairs. Photos can also be deceiving, so if the size of the rooms/room is important to you, be sure to ask for dimensions. That being said, for us, staying in apartments and homes rather than hotels is the ONLY way to travel! We could never have afforded eating in restaurants for all of our meals, and having space to spread out and get out of our suitcases was important to us.

**There are no real estate deals left in Europe, unless, of course, you don’t mind being out in the middle of nowhere in less than desirable locations. We looked at real estate prices in all the places where we stayed, and almost all of them were comparable to what one would have to pay in a desirable city/town in North America, sometimes higher, sometimes a little bit lower, but essentially the same. We did find some “fixer upper” farmhouses out in places like Zwettl, Austria or Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic, so if you don’t mind being in the country, it may be possible to get modest deals. In most cases, we’re talking apartments, not houses, although in the country, farmhouses have been discovered by city folk, and so rural areas near desirable cities have gotten pricey, too.

**While we did end up wearing absolutely everything we brought with us, I do think that next time, I would take fewer things, and buy stuff locally instead. Travelling with so many suitcases got very tiresome and encumbering.


**I learned that I really have no patience with global mass tourism. I know that makes me a snob of the first rank, but the endless crowds and throngs pouring out of tour busses at popular sites such as Park Güell, the Parthenon, and the entire town of Dubrovnik, just made the experience unenjoyable for me. We were so tired of dealing with this phenomenon that when in Trieste we chose not to go to Venice.


**I loved seeing so many children wherever we went. The adorable groups of daycare attendees being led by their minders–holding hands and walking in pairs–just boosted my spirits every time. Most of the school-age kids still walked to school on their own, lots of them played outdoors unsupervised, and to my eyes, they seemed to be allowed to be children longer than happens in America now. They did have cell phones and played video games, but still seemed a bit less involved with media, and were still able to run free.

**Architecture. It’s all about architecture. Need I say more?

**Oh, and nature. So many gorgeous vistas, immaculate city parks, verdant landscapes, forested mountainsides, and wildflowers everywhere in the spring. Nature was the one of the best parts of our travels, everywhere we went.

**Although I already knew this in my heart, I did learn that I really couldn’t bear living where I couldn’t speak the language, no matter how much English is spoken there.

**I like nothing better than to be in museums. It’s my continuing passion. The greatest thrill on this trip was to see so many new artworks and to discover genres I have admired for so long. I learned that my affinity for the Spanish Romanesque was validated: seeing 12419239_2595209089720_3733127715003269652_othe Beatus of Gerona in the Girona Cathedral was a thrilling moment–a big one off of my bucket list!






**I discovered that I am far more resilient than I thought I was. I stopped running to the doctor every time I had an ache or pain, chiefly because we would have to pay high rates to go to a physician. Instead, I just walked my way through the wonky knees and hips. All those flights of stairs just had to be climbed!  This has been for me one of the best lessons absorbed on our travels–if it isn’t life-threatening or too painful, then just deal with the small ailments, and get on with things. I am consequently now less neurotic about my old body, I hope.

And finally:

**I learned that we are perfectly happy being together 24/7, day after day, in small spaces, as long as we can sleep in separate beds! We had SUCH a wonderful time together!


Coming Home, part I

27 Jun

After nearly 10 months of travel, we have finally made it back to our house in Pasadena. We are still in culture shock — wondering where our suitcases are or how to get to familiar places, so I will make this entry a short one. So many people have already been asking what it feels like to be “home”, and I’m really not sure what to say.  So far, this is what I have been happy to see again, the few things that I missed:  the lemon tree in our backyard, our own bedrooms, gas cooking, Major League Baseball, the Sunday New York Times, and Trader Joe’s. Oh, and of course, some friends who we have yet to see. We still have to go up to my sister’s–five hours’ drive through the sweltering Central Valley–to pick up our cats, who no doubt will not even remember us and will be as freaked out coming back here as they were going up there. So our travels are not yet through. Then George has to fly back to Denver again to look after Max & Dottie’s character of a cat Freddy while they go introduce the baby to their friends in the Pacific Northwest.  George will also do some care of his frail father up in Greeley. He says he won’t be “at home” until all of that is finished. Then he says he plans to sit on the back porch for two solid months before we decide what we are doing with our house and what our next step might be. So stay tuned!

In the meantime, here are some images of the only reason we returned from Europe at all: our first grandchild Lyle, now 5 months old. Family is, of course, the real pull of home, wherever and whatever that is.

And since he is part of the family, here’s one of Freddy, too.


21 Things You Probably Don’t Know about My Dad

18 Jun

My friend Gabi Birkner just wrote a memoir of her father Larry Birkner, who was my boyfriend in Portland in 1972-73. Through Larry I became friends with his mother Eva, who I have written about on this blog. Larry and his wife were murdered in 2004, leading Gabi to create, along with a friend who had also lost her father through violence, the site, to help younger people cope with such loss. Here’s a link to her site:

This has inspired me to do the same for my father, Rudolph Esau, who died far too young, at 57, of a massive heart attack.  Here goes:

1. He had spinal meningitis when he was 2, his eyes crossed briefly, and he had to learn to walk all over again.

2. His mother was Norwegian, his father German, and so both spoke what was then called ”broken English.” When he started school, he spoke ”broken English”, too, so was held back in kindergarten. The only remnant of this as he grew up was the word ”under”, which he pronounced as a German would.

3.  At 11, he got mad at a kid in a baseball game, and punched him, knocking him out. He was so appalled by this that he never again got in to a physical fight with anyone. He was always a very gentle soul, although he liked non-violent practical jokes.

4. He was sent to the Aleutian Islands for his military stretch at the very end of the war–this California boy who had never seen snow!

5. From the time he was a very young boy, he knew what he wanted to be: a grower of plants. He was the first in his family to graduate from college, from Cal Poly in Ornamental Horticulture. He hated pretentiousness of any kind, and always called himself simply ”a grower.”

6. He met my mother on a blind date. He was 22 when I was born.

7. He was the foreman for a chrysanthemum nursery in Southern California, which grew a million dozen mums a year. They provided lots of them for the Rose Parade floats.

8. He liked to go deep-sea fishing, but didn’t like to eat fish.

9. Because of his love of plants, he had a war with 1) spiders (he really didn’t like them); 2) insects of all kinds (we never had a bug in the house, because he sprayed them to death); and 3) gophers. He used to round up the kids in the neighborhood, and go after the gopher fields, hosing them out and then whacking them over the head with a shovel. It was a different era, folks…

10. He was great at bartering–he traded his services, landscaping friends’ yards, for new flooring, plumbing or electrical work. When we went on a trip back East to see my mother’s family, he surprised us by building a whole dining ”bar”, the rage at the time.

11. Our garden was the showcase of the neighborhood. We had some 43 varieties of mums in the front garden beds.

12. My parents were great card players, and had friends over nearly every weekend. But my father hated smoking, and would always get up and open the windows and breathe deeply and conspicuously.

13. He was really a big kid at heart. He used to go to Mexico and buy tons of firecrackers for the Fourth, and then he would make firecracker rockets on the street, which shot way up in the air; we all loved it. When the police would come because it was an illegal activity, he would run in the house and leave us to be scolded by the cop. He also loved to make us kites; he would then take all the kids in the neighborhood to the park and fly them very long and high.

14. While we always had cats in our house, it was my dad who became closely attached to a dog, his beloved Bego, when we were in our teens. They were inseparable.

15. When my mother divorced him, because of years of alcoholism, he finally quit drinking. The final ten years of his life were without the grog, and he began his own growing business. He looked after his mother and got her into a nice nursing home in Ojai. He died three weeks before she did.

16. My mother and my father remained good friends, and actually went on vacations together.

17. He loved to barbecue, his favorite being tri-tip steaks.

18. I saw my father in a suit maybe twice in his life. His standard outfit from his teens on was a white t-shirt and Levis. Then in the 80s he went through a jumpsuit phase, as can be seen in the photo above of him watering our yard in New Orleans (one of his most iconic poses).

19. He used to sing ”Ramona” in the shower every night. And he had a favorite nonsense word, something like ”Skrittenninefort,” which he said whenever he didn’t know the answer to something.

20. He taught us to play poker, using matchsticks instead of money.

21. He once told my sister that we were his life.  I never had any doubt about that. And he was so delighted to have a grandson. That photo above with Max is the last photo I have of them together.





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