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Backtrack: Budapest

19 May

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Having come to Hungary chiefly because I had never been to Budapest, we did finally get around to driving up to the Big City, which was an hour and a half away from our place on Lake Balaton. Since we only spent half a day there and assumed we would return (we didn’t), we decided to focus our visit thematically: we would explore Jewish Budapest. This theme is in keeping with our visits in other cities, from Berlin to Trieste. And in Budapest this focus seemed especially appropriate:  before World War II, one in four Budapest residents were Jewish, and they were probably more accepted and essential to the city’s culture than in most other places in Central Europe. In the 1920s, 90% of bankers in Budapest were Jewish, 60% of the doctors, and 50% of university students. (I am not Jewish, but have a long, close relationship with many Jewish friends and have been drawn to Jewish history because of the years spent in German-speaking countries).

One can learn so much about a society’s cultural mores and its history by visiting its cemeteries, so we began our explorations at the Kosmas Cemetery, opened in 1893 and one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe.  It lies much further out of town than we had anticipated, and driving there brought us through less than salubrious parts of the city, past lots of those unfortunate Soviet-era apartment blocks, as well as a rather intimidating prison (we were stopped in traffic while prisoners were being escorted across the street, surrounded by viciously barking German Shepherds and what seemed like about 20 guards). Not the greatest introduction to one of the most beautifully-situated cities in Europe. But the cemetery’s grounds were an inviting venue of solemn calm. The entrance is where the domed building stands, now a bit dilapidated and having lost its gilt around the dome. The gates lead into a myriad of tree-lined paths extending for great lengths in several directions, with grassy expanses filled with gravestones.

jewishcemetery_schmidltomb2_budapest_may9Near the entrance are a number of extravagant tombs in all architectural styles:  the resting places for Budapest’s leading Jewish families in the period of their most prosperous and influential presence in the city, from the 1860s through the 1920s. One of the most impressive and flamboyant tombs is that of the Schmidl family, designed in 1903 by Hungary’s leading Secession architects Ödön Lechner and Béla Lajta and using Zsolnay tiles (we’ll talk about Zsolnay again in Pecs). One gets a sense in these elaborate tombs of a competition for ostentatious display among these prominent families, even in monuments to the dead. Evidence of happy, integrated times.

But then one is confronted here with the sorrowful fate of this shining world.

So many of the gravestones list a death date of 1944.  Most of these are memorial tombs, created to commemorate the loss of whole families in that hideous year, when under Adolf Eichmann’s direction, all the Jews of Hungary were sent to the concentration camps, or were locked up in the Budapest ghetto where they were systematically shot or died of starvation. (Hungary is the place, however, where thousands of Jews were saved from the camps by people like Raoul Wallenberg, for whom there is a memorial sculpture in the Jewish Museum.) The Kosmas Cemetery also has a Holocaust Memorial, on which, poignantly, names are still being pencilled in, as families learn more about their ancestors’ fate.

On that somber note–it rained only during our time in the cemetery, and cleared up as soon as we left–we drove into Central Pest, first to visit The Great Synagogue on Dohanyi Street (“dohanyi” means tobacco in Hungarian!). This is the largest synagogue in Europe (the largest in America, Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, is a direct copy of this one), built in a Byzantine Moorish Revival style by the Viennese architect Ludwig Förster in 1854-59. As is so often the case with 19th-century historicist buildings, Förster said he chose this revival style because he thought it was most closely aligned to Levantine styles and could not identify a specifically Jewish architecture!

If you look at the photo of the synagogue’s interior, you can see plaques with flags along the middle aisle. These identify where guides speaking each country’s language give explanations of the synagogue’s history. The biggest group sat in the English-language section. The grounds also include a memorial garden to the victims of the 1944 pogrom–many of whose bodies are buried here–and a stunning Holocaust memorial, a metal weeping willow with the names of victims inscribed on every leaf. (The sculpture was partly funded by Tony Curtis, who was of Hungarian background).

Next door to the Synagogue is a small Jewish Museum, which has been in operation since 1931.  Its exhibits change regularly, but we were able to see this artifact, which will speak for itself:

Another of our thematic goals on this trip is to document public libraries, and in Budapest we found a doozy.

The Ervin Szabó Library is housed in a 19th-century Neo-Baroque palace built by the Wenckheim family. When we arrived, we found a film crew had taken over the palace part of the building, so we were only able to enter the library section. But what a public library space!  One has to pay to buy a library card to enter the reading room, so we just admired the coffee shop and got information about the collections. It contains an unbelievealbe photographic archive of 120,000 images of Budapest, as well as 300,000 books and documents on the history of the city.  It is located next to the university, and the place was stuffed to the gills with students. Szabó was a social reformer who served as the library’s first director.

Budapest–or shall I say Pest, since we really only got to that side of town–is filled with some beautiful buildings, many of which are still in a lamentable state. Plastering is desperately needed!  They reminded me of what Viennese buildings looked like in the early 60s before war damage had been completely repaired. While the city has a bit of a hipster buzz–all the young folks speak English, there are tons of pubs and night spots–it’s obvious that money is only being spent to renovate the most touristy places, which is sad.  Let’s hope that progress will be made soon–it’s a shame to see these edifices falling into decay. And I am not saying they should be tarted up to gentrified levels! Just maintained a little bit.

So that was our whirlwind trip to Budapest! We also were able to visit the spectacular Central Market near the river, the mighty Danube River, which, as I had always been told, looks much more like the romantic waterway of song in Budapest than it does in Vienna.

Finally, as we drove past, we caught a glimpse of the phantasmagoric Museum of Applied Arts, with all those amazingly glittery Zsolnay tiles. Mention of Zsolnay leads into my next blog on Pecs; I had hoped to include that description here, but there’s so much to write, and so little time!  Next blog, I promise!

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Guadalajara: one theater and one museum

13 Apr

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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.

Immigration to Mexico

28 Mar

seal-of-mexicoIn keeping with my pledge to learn what I can about immigration to the countries we are visiting, in case family and friends wish, or are forced, to leave Trumpland, I have been greatly aided in Mexico by the fact that we’re staying in an ex-pat community. The Lake Chapala Society here in Ajijic has an immigration officer in the office every week to answer ex-pat’s questions!  She has sheets printed out with all the details of acquiring both temporary and permanent residency. The requirements are by far the easiest to fulfill of all the places we have visited so far.

First of all, it is possible to stay in Mexico on a tourist visa for 180 days. It is then possible to cross back into the U.S., stay for a few days, and come back again for another 6 months. As I understand it, one can even purchase property here while visiting on a tourist visa. If one wants to stay for more than 6 months, or is planning to move here permanently, it is better to apply for either a Temporary Residency or a Permanent Residency. Both require application via a Mexican consulate in one’s home country; the nice woman advising us at the Society said with a bit of embarrassment that each consulate has different interpretations of the requirements, and has discretion to change what is required to apply. But generally, the required documents and qualifications are as follows:

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The notes on the sheet are mine, and have to do with application fees, which range from 5300 pesos ($278) for a 1-year temporary residency visa, to about 9300 pesos (about $490) for a 3-year visa. The proof of income figures are encouraging:  32,000 pesos–the monthly amount required to qualify for a temporary residency–is about $1700, and means that one must prove that one has that amount coming in every month for the last 6 months. For a permanent residency visa, that figure is about $2,000/month. To my amazement, according to the immigration agent, a temporary residency visa entitles you to work in the country, and to have access to Mexican health care. The only glitch for couples is that each spouse must apply separately and show proof of that income. But the agent explained that should one spouse not have the required income, arrangements will be made once the other spouse has qualified.

Bottom line:  if you have any assets at all, it’s pretty easy to move here and gain residency status. No wonder there are so many ex-pats here that own properties! The only other advice that this lovely immigration agent made involved cars. It is apparently more complicated to bring your own car here than to buy one in Mexico and insure it.

More information can be found at https://www.mexperience.com/lifestyle/living-in-mexico/visas-and-immigration/

¡Viva Mexico!

In Oz again

16 Jan

First of all, let’s just dismiss the idea that any 12-to-15-hour flight in economy class can ever be “enjoyable,” or even comfortable.  It’s just something one has to endure if one wants to experience the Southern Hemisphere.  We arrived this time via Auckland, which just added to the amount of time spent in transit.  Too bad we couldn’t have stopped for longer in New Zealand–perhaps another time.

So here we are back in Australia, our second home (we’re dual citizens), still in jet lag, and me with an airplane-induced cold. But it’s summer in Australia, and we are in Pearl Beach, a very upscale beach community about an hour and a half to the north of Sydney.  Our friends Bruce and Diane Swalwell have lived here in one place or another since we first came to Australia in 1990; we met them 40 years ago, when we were all dorm parents while in graduate school in Philadelphia. Our kids grew up together.  Pearl Beach is the most perfect beach for children, since it has limited waves, and a beautiful strand to walk on, plus fascinating rocks and tide pools to explore.  It received its name from Arthur Phillip, Captain of the First Fleet, in 1788, when he spotted the cove while exploring this part of the coast; he said the waves breaking against the beach looked like a strand of pearls. And they do!

And it’s high summer in Australia!  No better place to experience essential aspects of Australian life than at the beach in January:  kids playing cricket in the sand, families with all their beach gear walking and biking down the road, wet bodies walking up to the showers or to their cars.  And there couldn’t be a more salubrious setting than Pearl Beach, with its jungle-like bush around, and its overwhelming number of birds and wildlife surrounding the beach.  And to hear kookaburras again is just music to my ears.

The Swalwells’ house is a block from Pearl Beach’s Arboretum, a lovely left-wild but well-cared for parcel filled with the most glorious red gums and ferns and cabbage trees. The paths are tended by the village’s residents; flyers on the trails list the “Birds of Pearl Beach,” which number more than 100.  We didn’t see any there this time, but the vegetation was as beautiful as ever.

Oh, to be able to live here! But alas, as with most of Australia’s East Coast, the house prices are obscene, even for falling-down fibros.  So we will have to look further afield, even for rentals. But aren’t we lucky that we can visit this wonderful place?

My son and sports

16 Oct

This week has witnessed the appallingly obscene depths to which the Republican candidate for President of the United States can sink. Everyone from Michelle Obama–in the most powerful speech of the year–to former NFL player Chris Kluwe have expressed disbelief, shame, and fear about assertions of sexual predation being dismissed by the candidate as  “locker room talk”. As so many people have stated, this grossly demeaning attitude is not only an abuse of women, but is an enormous slap in the face to men who play sports and spend time in locker rooms. My son Max, who has spent more than enough time in locker rooms, was disgusted enough to put up this note on Facebook:

I finally figured out my thoughts… Yes it is atrocious sentiments towards women, but it’s also demeaning to men and sporty men the most. We don’t talk like this… Ever. To imply we do and to equate it to playing sports degrades what is the purest outlet of physical expression and bonding we have. Locker room talk, in my experience, is more hopeful and joyous. All those endorphins make you talk about the future and the happy moments of the past. What you’re hopeful for and grateful for and why you’re happy to be hanging out with whoever you just squashed/ran/soccered with. Give me that back you shitty off brand pumpkin spiced dirt bag.

While these words made me proud of him for having grown into such an ethically decent human being, it also made me, as his mother, remember how important sports–or, as one says in Australia where Max did most of this athletic activity, sport–can be for young men. When we moved to Australia–where sport plays such a prominent role in public life and culture–Max was 7. The adjustment to this new place was difficult at first, not only because his first school was less tolerant of difference than it should have been, but also because he was just beginning to figure out what athletic competition was about, and which sports he would want to play. His first foray into cricket was a mistake–probably not the game to introduce an American-born child to before some other, less arcane, games were tried. In this, his father helped, by becoming a coach of t-ball, and then, baseball proper.  At the same time, Max began playing soccer, eventually becoming a referee, while we all started watching the big sports of the culture, Rugby League, Rugby Union, and Australian Rules football.

Through sport, Max became part of Australian life, and at the same time, learned to discipline emotions, how to be part of a team, and to enjoy athletic activity.  As fans, we all learned how to deal with disappointment with losses and with elation when our teams won.  I can still remember how proud Max was when he came home from soccer referee training, with his little pouch of penalty cards. He held up the red card, and said “Just think, Mom, a billion people fear this card!”  And I was immensely proud of him when he had to red-card a PARENT at an Under-12s girls’ game who was becoming abusive.  Sport, as he has said himself, taught him respect and tolerance and using good judgement. It also provided camaraderie, esprit de corps, and all those joyful things. In many of these exciting moments, his teams were coed, the girls being as much a part of the team as the boys.

He did NOT learn to consider obscenities or the demeaning of women to be part and parcel of an athletic life.  To this day, Max, who is now a husband and a father of a son, continues to love sports, both actively participating and watching competition as a fan.  I’m sure that if his son is interested, Max will impart all of those positive aspects that sports can provide for a boy. It’s a hard time for young men today. Let’s hope that sports can continue to offer the same kind of outlet for growing into healthy adults that it has provided for generations of men and women.  Thanks, Max, for reminding me of what you loved about locker room talk!

Things I’ve learned about Lisbon

14 Jan

Let me present some things I have now learned about this fascinating city, in no particular order:

–According to our new friend Paula, sardines have become a kind of new popular symbol for the city. “I don’t know why, or when this started,” she said. But we have found sardines in all shapes and sizes in all the shop windows. Above are two examples in ceramic and in fabric.

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— Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones, came to Lisbon in hopes of recovering from TB, wrote one of the only early descriptions in English of a journey to Lisbon , and then, unfortunately, died soon after arriving in 1754. And who knew that there has been a British Cemetery in this Portuguese city since an agreement between Cromwell and King João IV in 1654? The cemetery, appropriately called St. George’s, is charming and serene, with a lovely small church amidst the many graves. Along with those of British sailors and British residents in Portugal, the graves include ones in memory of Dutch prisoners of war from South Africa, and some other nationalities. No one knew exactly where Fielding was buried, although they know he was buried here. The memorial tomb was erected in 1830 by the British community in Portugal. We had to pay our respects.

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–Portuguese TV (we have a TV with satellite dish in this apartment) consists of about 10 channels of local Portuguese content, mostly news and sports, then the rest is almost entirely American programs, presented in English with Portuguese subtitles. There are also a few French channels, and one in Russian. But none in German! All of the worst of the reality shows are here, and none of the PBS or HBO ones. It’s a good way to learn Portuguese, and people here say it’s how they learned English.

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–Lisbon is a city of many neighborhoods, but all of them seem to have tons of tiny ”tascas”, cafes with about four tables and a bar. Here’s one in our neighborhood, with workers bellied up to the bar at noon.  They all serve a special of the day, um Prato do Dia, which is usually some kind of pork stew, feijoada (beans) and perhaps a fish or squid dish.

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George with feijoada

To our surprise, Portuguese cuisine is not big on vegetables, despite having good ones in the markets. Alternative/new age food fads don’t seem to have made much of a dent here, either, and we haven’t seen any juice bars or signs for gluten free anything. There are some organic markets, but they’re fairly lacklustre. We have found only one ”supermercado”, a supermarket as we would understand one, and it is huge: part of a ginormous department store/mall called Corte Ingles. We found it by accident when we went up to see the Gulbenkian. The Metro stops within the shopping center. That’s where we have had to go to find goat’s milk and sheep’s milk yogurt. And this is the land of white bread–goodbye to the heavy German breads that we love.

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My bacalhau

The only thing I knew about Portuguese food was bacalhau, which I thought referred to one particular dish, but which is just the word for salted cod, prepared in a variety of ways. This must be the ultimate comfort food, and I can imagine homesick Portuguese
longing for their mother’s beloved bacalhau meal. Here’s the version I had at the Museu Nacional do Arte Antiga. Sort of like a creamed tuna pie, with spinach.

 

 

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Portugal has a deep and rich literary tradition, and they revere their writers, as the statues to Camoes and Ribeiro Chiado indicate. And there are statues to other authors all over Lisbon. Their most beloved modern poet is Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), a fascinating character who wrote poems and prose in the voice of 4 distinct and separate identities, and wrote some of them in English. Growing up in South Africa, he returned to Portugal to go to university. Perhaps because of this experience as a Portuguese away from his homeland, he became committed to making the rest of the world aware of the Portuguese language and culture. After his death, scholars found in his manuscripts the outline of a tour guide to Lisbon, geared at the English-speaking traveler. Here he wrote ”For the average Britisher, and, indeed, for the average everything (except Spaniard) outside Portugal, Portugal is a vague small country somewhere in Europe, sometimes supposed to be part of Spain…” We are now checking out this guide, which has been recently published. George notices with glee that a lot of what Pessoa writes here seems to have been appropriated word for word from the Baedeker’s for Portugal from 1907.  He is checking on that right now!

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Normally I find most public sculpture to be rather boring or formulaic, but I have found Lisbon’s sculptures to be elegant and evocative, if not downright erotic. Above a lovely sculpture in the middle of the pond at Jardim da Estrela and on the left an amusingly poetic paean to the writer José Maria de Eça de Queirós, apparently being inspired by a scantily clad Muse.  Lovely!

As I have been writing this, other monumental personal events have occurred–the birth of our first grandchild!–so I will have to continue these musings later!

Lisbon is uphill!

11 Jan

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After a short week in Lisbon, we can make a few observations:

First of all, it’s obvious that we are now in a Latin country, with all the positive and negative connotations that such a blanket statement implies. The most attractive thing to us so far is that, while the city has made some concessions to tourism, tourist traps do not dominate; the city is still a city for its own people, with all the messiness that such a situation implies. The buildings are often in various states of dilapidation, but are still often inhabited; one will be beautifully restored next to a completely derelict-looking building. lisbon_condebarrao_derelictbldgThere is a sense of a bit of romantic decay everywhere, a distinctly different aesthetic than in Vienna or other Northern European cities. Perhaps we sense this now because we have an apartment in the Bairro Alto, the old working class part of town. There are no supermarkets here, just tiny little shops for meat, fruit, vegetables, tea, pastries, coffee, and anything else you might need, but not much variety, and lots of the so-called ”necessities” missing. But these shopkeepers are part of the community, and are the eyes of the street, too. There is no recycling bin, or even a garbage bin. We take the garbage bag out every night and leave it by the side of the house, and someone comes and picks it up every morning! The streetcar runs right up our little narrow street; it comes pretty often, but is never really on time, and sometimes you have to wait 20 or 30 minutes, and then 3 of them will come all at once. P1020719

The pace of life is definitely Latin–very casual, nothing rushed. Lots of noises in the neighborhood: dogs barking, music of all sorts coming out of the windows, boisterous singing on the street when the bars close, conversations overheard through the wall in the next apartment, the people above moving furniture around. But people do seem to be respectful of others after 10 at night or so, and people are friendly to each other. In this neighborhood, not everyone speaks English, and they will go to great lengths to correct one’s feeble attempts at speaking Portuguese–it may look a bit like Spanish, but it is pronounced completely differently!

And my God, is Lisbon hilly!  I am happy to say that while my legs and knees ache a lot, I have been able to make some pretty steep climbs, but I wouldn’t want to be an old person with limited mobility here.   But every turn reveals something new, some glorious architectural wonder, or poetic moment.

Just some of my thoughts about Lisbon at this point in our stay.