Archive | July, 2016

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:

LONDON

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.

BERLIN

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.

gniazdowo_mennonitehouse_cat

 

VIENNA

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.

LISBON

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.

 

BARCELONA

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?

   Anxiety

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

   Meanness

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?

      Uncertain

8.What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

      Honor

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?

   Kindness

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

    Kindness

14.Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

    Quintessential

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?

        Enthusiasm

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

 

berlintableau

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_tram28endstop_@cemetery

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.

 

 

 

 

 

yellowopel

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 SabbaticalHomes.com. 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!

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