Archive | April, 2017

London adventures

25 Apr

Museums and libraries! Just what we needed after Mexico!  It is so wonderful to come back to the same place we stayed in London when we were last here (see my blogs for September 2015). Our friends’ lovely city apartment near Regents Park offers such a view of this place that we would never be able to experience if we had to pay for it. And just to remind us that we have still somehow angered the God of Construction: even here in plummy Marylebone, just as we did in Ajijic, Dubrovnik, and Vienna, we had a construction site right next door! Amusingly, the workers only made genteel, politely British bangs throughout the day.


Our apartment was just on the other side of the scaffolding, which we could see from the front window.

Our first visit was to the Tate Britain, where we had heard of a rather controversial exhibition, “Queer British Art, 1861-1967,” and which I promised several gay friends I would report upon.  (The David Hockney exhibition was also there, and was packed with visitors; he is immensely popular in Britain. His drawings are very nice, and I liked his video of the countryside, but his paintings: meh….too much familiarity perhaps?) The dates of the show commemorate two startling moments in gay history: in 1861, the death penalty was abolished as a punishment for sodomy, and 1967 saw the partial decriminalization of male homosexual acts. As the exhibition’s brochure explains, the term “queer” was chosen to emphasize the broad continuum of sexuality represented in the artworks on display.

If ever an exhibition required contextual labels, this one stands out. Indeed, many reviewers complained that the show had more to do with anecdotes about artists, innuendos about gay lifestyles, than it had to do with any particular aesthetic direction or quality. I found the show fascinating because of these revelations, and applaud its non-polemical approach to a complicated subject that opens up myriad possibilities for debate. I am in awe of the curators, who must have had many an obstreperous battle, first to identify their objects and to place them into a meaningful context. Can one really speak of a gay aesthetic?  Why was it considered scandalous for women to paint images of nude women? Can one talk of “gay” content if one doesn’t know the artist’s intentions or sexual leanings? What role does class play in the long and tangled saga of persecution for homosexuality?

The Victorian room, labelled “Coded Desires”, was just bursting with “reading between the lines” repression and longing.  Some of the stories, such as that of Simeon Solomon, Jewish and gay and eventually shunned despite his obvious artistic talents, were sad beyond imagining. Others offered hilarious examples of subversion, such as Joe Orton and Ken Halliwell’s altering of library books’ covers and blurbs with suggestive titles and images. And so many mergings of sexual identity!  My favorite was the story of the “life partners” Edith Cooper and her niece Katherine Harris Bradley who combined themselves into one identity called Michael Field, a name under which they wrote many plays and poetry.  I managed to take photos in the exhibit until the point where I was advised that photos were forbidden, so I wasn’t able to get many of the later images in the show.

But I had to go back to sneak one last picture of the most moving object: the door to the cell in which Oscar Wilde was incarcerated at Reading Gaol for his liaison with Lord Alfred Douglas. An entire section of the show focusses on Wilde’s case. Talk about a concrete example of the absurdity of trying to legislate morality and control sexual desires.


And now for something completely different:  the Wellcome Collection, a thoroughly bustling place with an air of eccentricity turned to genuinely life-saving charitable ends. Sir Henry Wellcome, one of those 19th-century phenoms, the American self-made man, came to England and founded the pharmaceutical firm Wellcome and Burroughs (which would be the foundation of contemporary drug giant GlaxoSmithKline). Becoming immensely wealthy, he amassed an amazingly bizarre collection of objects, ostensibly relating to the history of medicine, and founded at the same time a medical library on the subject.  My son tells me that the Wellcome Trust, the legacy of the man’s beneficence, is the single most significant medical charity in the world today, and is the organization that saved the human genome project from becoming a for-profit entity.

The building is a happy place, with temporary exhibitions, two bustling and very good restaurants, a permanent display including a minuscule number of Wellcome’s collected objects (including Florence Nightingale’s moccasins and Napoleon’s toothbrush!), a host of lectures, a great bookshop focussing on science and nature, and the magnificent Wellcome Library.  George actually got a library membership card for free–our kind of place!

Through the generosity of our dear friend Ken, we also went to see the National Gallery’s show “Michelangelo and Sebastiano.”  More Sebastiano than Michelangelo, but as with so many exhibits now (an approach that I personally enjoy), the show was really about context and milieu. The labels explain how Michelangelo took Sebastiano under his wing, out of his hatred for the wastrel Raphael, and as a way to thwart this younger artist’s ambitions. After the Queer Art show, I couldn’t help but read some gay subtext into all of this, but in any case, the artworks gained more immediacy once these stories were told.

Our final museum tour brought a hilarious surprise. The Royal Academy of Arts, housed in Burlington House–the last great 17th-century mansion in London–had as its exhibition…American Art of the 1930s! Organized by the Chicago Art Institute, it came from the Orangerie in Paris.

We laughed and laughed, to see Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” in the halls of the Royal Academy. Once again, I took a few surreptitious photos until I was caught.

We spent a lovely if nippy afternoon in Regents Park, admiring the gorgeous displays of spring flowers, so elegantly considered–curated by gardeners as any exhibition of art would be–with rows of tulips and other spring blossoms displayed in matching colors along each path.  We were struck by two observations in the park: because the sun was out, despite what we considered rather chilly air, the natives were taking off their shoes and their jackets, lying in the sun to soak it up.  We also noticed that the enormous crowds contained every nationality of the old British Empire. We heard at least 10 languages, most of which we didn’t recognize.  Lots of “mixed” families, with beautiful children sporting completely British accents. London is nothing if not diverse. I couldn’t believe how many women in full purdah were shopping at Marks and Spencers and Selfridge.

This diversity was not in evidence in our final adventure, and was all the more striking for it.   My favorite shoes are Hotter, a British mail order–and now online–company. I assumed when I got to London I would be able to find the shoes in regular shops in the city. Not so: the only shops that carry them are in the outer suburbs. In need of some attractive comfortable pairs, we ventured out on the Tube to Enfield Town, about an hour away. (I have just been informed that I am incorrect in my assertions about Enfield Town. Sorry! It does feel quite different from central London nonetheless.)

While appearing fairly prosperous, this was definitely Brexit territory. Not a brown face to be seen, or very few at least.  These are the English who resent the EU, who fear immigrants, and feel that they have been ignored by the governments. All very congenial people nonetheless, which I must say has been the happiest aspect of this visit. People here seem to be comfortable in themselves and with their lot, are friendly and approachable. We felt little tension or aggravation anywhere, a welcome change from the charged atmosphere of the US right now.  I’m sure that this observation is a very shallow one, but daily interactions and mundane observations do tell some of the story.

If only Britain had better weather!

A rumination on tolerance

21 Apr

We are now in London, after a long flight and a moment of impatience waiting for the arrival of errant luggage (thanks, Chicago O’Hare!), and happily soaking up culture as fast as we can.  But before I forget the circumstances that led to these ruminations on the question of tolerance, I want to recount an incident that happened as we were en route from Mexico to Europe. In between these points, we had to spend one night at a Marriott Hotel in Pasadena–our own home town! As we checked in to the hotel, I noticed that the pool area was overflowing with lots of yelling, splashing children and some very fat people who just didn’t seem like the kind of folks who would be paying for rooms at a hotel with a concierge.

Our room overlooked this pool, where the splashing and shouting continued well after dark and up to the moment at 10 p.m., when the pool area closed. When I went down in the lobby, the seats were filled with wet kids wrapped in towels.  At that point, I realized that the hotel was housing people who came from shelters or were waiting for Section 8 housing–in other words, the homeless.  My immediate relatively-well-off-white person’s response was to be somewhat irritated by their presence, to be pissed off that these people who were not my kind were able to enjoy the niceties of a middle-rung hotel while not paying what we had to pay.

And then I stopped myself: it was WRONG and unsympathetic to think like this! When I saw how happy the kids were–and they spent every waking hour in that pool, or so it seemed–and how ecstatic the very fat men were to sit in the hot-tub pool, it made me feel ashamed that I could be so heartless. They weren’t inconveniencing me, except that the pool area was now kind of off limits. I can’t deny that I had that first disgusted reaction–that emotion–but I thought it through to try and have a bit of sympathy for these folks, who–but for the grace of God or whatever–could have included myself.

These considerations, then, led me to contemplate how some people let their prejudices control them, because they just react to that first FEELING and don’t consider anything past that initial reaction.  All those people filled with fear and bile about “others” coming into their communities just can’t get past that limited emotional response. I don’t know if these kinds of reaction can be mitigated by education, or if some people are just wired differently so that they can’t allow themselves to be open to different ways of thinking, or can’t be sufficiently self-reflective to come to some insight about others. Can tolerance be taught?  I just don’t know. But it’s always a good wake-up call to be confronted with your own intolerance and prejudices, to gain a little bit of humility.  The most important thing: The children were happy.

Guadalajara: one theater and one museum

13 Apr


We took the “Directo” bus into Guadalajara the other day, with the intention of seeing the interior of the famed Teatro Degollado (it wasn’t open when we were last there), and then taking the local bus over to the artisan suburb of Tonalá, where so much of Jalisco’s crafts are made.  We took a taxi to the Centro Historico, right next to the Teatro.

We were able to walk right in to the Teatro, and the attendants were eager to have us enjoy the beautiful interior. They even turned the lights on especially for us.  The ceiling depicts scenes from The Divine Comedy. It was built between 1856 and 1866–the height of Mexico’s most European-inspired phase and at a time of its greatest theatrical production.  As Spanish-speaking friends tell me, the word “degollado” means “beheaded”, a rather distressing name for a cultural center, but perhaps an appropriate title for a military general, which is who the theater is honoring:  Santos Degollado (1811-1861), who had fought alongside Juarez and who died while the theater was being built. Guadalajara’s Philharmonic performs here, as does the opera. I would be most happy to attend a performance in this space.

After this visit, we went back to the elegant Hotel Morales, where we had eaten before. Such an inviting and comfortable space, where we had a lovely meal at a very reasonable price. Accommodation in this historic hotel is also amazingly affordable.

As we sat there reading fascinating books from the hotel’s little library, I decided that instead of going to Tonalá, which is all about selling things that we really weren’t going to buy, I needed a museum fix.  So we looked at the Guadalajara tourist map, which led us to two museums right near the center of town. One of them–a museum of periodicals and graphics–is unfortunately closed for renovations, but the other one was such a gem that we were more than satisfied with our find.

The Museo de las Artes Populares de Jalisco (Calle San Felipe & Calle Pino Suárez) is housed in a delicately-stuccoed 19th-century villa about 4 blocks from the main plaza. “Popular arts” in this case means not only folk art, but also popular contemporary craft works. This was the museum that we thought we were going to see in Tlaquepaque, with the whole gamut of  Jalisco’s traditional crafts on display. The exhibits are delightful, with the best explanatory labels I have seen in a museum anywhere, in Spanish and English. Finally, we were able to place technique with product and location; the labels even highlighted the best artisans of each technique. Now I can go back and link up all those ceramic pieces from the Panteleon with the correct style.

The objects on display included work in wax, stone, yarn, and obscure techniques such as chilte, objects made out of the sap of the sapodilla tree. And look at this excellent descriptive label:

My favorite displays were of altars and rooms. The replica of a traditional Jalisco kitchen was particularly charming. The altars were for a ritual for Our Lady of Sorrows, and a particular version of a Dia de los Muertos shrine, including bread figures, but not adding  fruits or drink.

The Huichol people created a significant indigenous culture in Jalisco, and the museum has tremendous examples of their crafts and most revered images. The deer, which was most sacred to the Huichol, has been placed on the museum’s stairway wall, and yarn masks and beadwork occupy several rooms.

The reigning shrine of Guadalajara is dedicated to the Virgen de Zapopan, whose statue is the focus of a romeria, or pilgrimage procession, which takes place between June 13 and October 12 each year, when the figure travels to every church in Guadalajara. The museum naturally had a figure of this Virgin, festooned with sombrero and rebozo.

After such a rewarding afternoon of viewing objects of such tremendous skill and diversity, we decided that we would forego any other museum visits that day, and headed back to Ajijic. To our amazement, we found that this little jewel of a museum is not even mentioned in our Lonely Planet guide!  I have a feeling that Guadalajara has so much more to offer than we have been able to see, and we have been disappointed that our guidebooks, what few we have found, have been so lackluster in their descriptions of the history and culture of the region.  We’ll have to visit more often, and with natives who can show us the real city.

On that note, I will end with more images from the Museo, including, of course, a cat, this one of polished clay.

Mexican revelations

4 Apr

Some of my observations and revelations about Mexico after being here a month:

**Mexican men never, ever wear shorts, not even when it’s 35 degrees C. Shorts are for little boys and futbol players.

**Many Mexicans seem to LIKE yapping, yelping, barking dogs that go on and on and on.


**Mexicans still have the most amazing artisans, doing old traditional skills, sometimes on the side of the road. This man canes chairs on the corner of the Carretera; across the street from him another man makes plastic baskets on a box loom. Others make beautiful wooden furniture, or elaborate beadwork.

**Real life in Mexico goes on behind all those walls and gates. As Alan Riding wrote in his book Distant Neighbors:  “The high walls that surround most Mexican homes, including frequently those of the poor, serve as both real and symbolic frontiers of security and authority.” Architecturally, these walled barriers and flat facades reveal little of what might be beyond; once inside those walls, an enveloping calm, perhaps with garden and fountains, may greet the resident or visitor. Outside is hot, chaos and noise; inside is cool, peaceful and gentle. Cats live here, not dogs–or rather, cats stay inside the walls to escape the dogs that roam the streets.

**Life in Mexico does move at a different pace, but it isn’t necessarily a quiet or serene one. Perhaps because we have been living here next to a construction site, my sense is that the Mexicans work hard, often doing manual labor without machines, from dawn to dusk without interruption; then at night, quite often, they party with lots of music. Mexico is a noisy place.

**Mexicans are overwhelmingly cordial, polite, and non-confrontational. Even in their chaotic traffic, manners are observed. I can’t imagine incidents of road rage here, even if there is a small bang up. We haven’t seen a bang up, small or large.  That seems odd, considering the seemingly informal approach to sharing the road.  We have had nothing but positive interactions with everyone we have met, and they are more than patient with our attempts to speak Spanish.

**Images of the Virgin of Guadalupe appear everywhere, and in every conceivable medium. For those of us familiar with the Virgen in California Chicano imagery, the ones we have seen here are more reverent, not–understandably- as defiantly a statement of Mexican identity and solidarity with the causes of La Raza. For those who don’t know the story of this beloved image (I must admit that even I, a non-Catholic, carry around a Virgen image!), Wikipedia gives a good synopsis of Her significance:


I’m sure I’ll have more observations in the next few days, but I just wanted to get these down. And I did include another image of cats!



1 Apr

For our anniversary (March 17), we splurged and hired a private driver to take us to Tlaquepaque, one of the more upscale neighborhoods of Guadalajara. Hiring private drivers is a common practice here, since renting cars can be quite expensive, and driving in Mexico is not for the faint-hearted. This ended up costing us about 1000 pesos–about $50–but we figured it was our anniversary, so we went all out. In future, we will take the “Directo” bus into Guadalajara, then get a taxi–a much more reasonable option, at about $15 all up.

Of Tlaquepaque we knew only what we had read in our Lonely Planet guide, which wasn’t a lot, but the book did tell us that there were two museums of ceramics in the neighborhood, and I had found what sounded like a good restaurant from Trip Advisor online. We had the driver let us off right next to the first of the ceramic museums we had read about, Museo Pantaleon Panduro, also referred to as Museo Nacional de la Ceramica, on the corner of Florida and Sanchez.

The museum is housed in one section of an enormous convent hospital built in the 18th century. Somehow the Lonely Planet description of the collection led us to believe that this was a collection of all kinds of traditional Mexican folk art, when in fact it displays the winners of a national annual award for artisanal ceramic craft. It took us a while to figure this out, however. Entering the museum, the one woman at the front desk seemed pleasantly surprised to see foreigner visitors. There were no guides, no brochures, no explanations of what was to be found in the rooms in front of us, and no bookshop. A group of students were working diligently on some project in a room off of the central courtyard. While there were some guards and curators wandering around, no one spoke English, and while tremendously friendly, they really acted as if they had never seen a tourist before. When I tried in my broken Spanish to find out how the collection came to be, one guide hailed a woman, obviously a curator of some kind, who went upstairs to bring down a book and gave us three DVDs about the “Premio”–the award which provides the museum with all of its artworks (I think; the DVDs gave no documentation of the awards, but just florid rhapsodies about the “miracles” of native creativity!). In any case, it is a magnificent collection of the extremely rich and varied ceramic arts from around the entire country.  I used to have some knowledge about the styles of various regions, but I have gotten very rusty now, and will have to do some research to remember which motifs come from which area.

True to form, I was also intrigued by the numerous interpretation of cats that the collection included, ranging from traditional lions to modern versions of ceramic felines.

Finally, my very favorite work in the collection was in the room dedicated to women artisans, in a style that I was not immediately familiar with. bluejar_1990_pantaleon_tlaquepaque

Created by Gabriela Aldana Luna, from Tonalá, Jalisco (home of Guadalajara’s best artisans), it won second place at the Awards in 1990.  I have now done a little research to learn that, as I suspected, this blue-and-white style developed as early as the 17th century in Puebla, in direct imitation of Chinese ware that was imported through the galleon trade. So this is a modern craftsperson creating a traditional style that was consciously emulating an Asian style, but incorporating native designs of local animals and flowers.  Syncretism indeed!

ceramicsmuseum_arcade_tlaquepaqueOur next stop was the Museo Regional de la Ceramica, on Independencia, Tlaquepaque’s main shopping street. The setting is once again an impressive adobe complex, which was once a

lionptg_archway_ceramicsmuseum_tlaquepaque - Copy

A whimsical design on an arch in the bookshop of the Museo.

magnificent house for one of Guadalajara’s aristocratic families. Beautiful arches!  The courtyard had several craftsman vendors, and there is even a very good shop, with books and ceramics for sale.

The collections here were more diverse than Pantaleon, with both English and Spanish labels, and more descriptive information. We were enchanted with the whimsical creations, including a ceramic airplane, and an entire wall of individual tiles. And check out those spooky nahuales!

After feasting on all this visual gorgeousness, it was time for lunch. We walked over to Zaguan, the restaurant I had found reviewed on Trip Advisor. And what a great find it was!

Very innovative menu–that’s G. eating a fish taco entrada with tortillas made out of jicama.  The mushroom bruschetta were fantastic! One of the best meals we have had, tasted like home made creative food, and certainly the best meal we have had in Mexico so far. NO ONE was there, which is dismaying; we hope more people come for dinner.  If you’re ever in Guadalajara, be sure to go there! Zaguan, Juarez 5, Tlaquepaque 45580.

Finally, on our walk back to find our driver, we found, as only we seem to be able to find, a public library!

The library seems to have grown out of one person’s efforts, and is now, by all appearances, a thriving center, with a children’s room, and, as we saw when we walked in, classes of all sorts for adults (this one was a workshop in making ceramics, appropriately enough).

A very nice day for our first venture into the big city of Guadalajara.  We have now also gone into the Centro historico on regular bus, and will, hopefully, report on that adventure, too. Next week, we will go to Tonalá, the other suburb of town where most of the artisanal crafts for which the city is famous are actually made, and cost far less than in the toney shops of Tlaquepaque.