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Vienna–then and now

2 Nov


The photo above was in an article in the most recent Sunday edition of Vienna’s Die Presse titled “Wien wird jünger und jünger”–Vienna is getting younger and younger, a fact that comes as a surprise to many who still remember the image of the city as filled with old people and old culture. I first lived in Vienna exactly 50 years ago, from September 1969 to August 1970;  I was 20 when I arrived and celebrated my 21st birthday there. At that time, there were still visible remnants of the war, both among the buildings and the people:  a few structures were in disrepair if not outright rubble and Otto Wagner’s Secessionsgebäuden and other architectural monuments were often a bit shabby,  having not yet been completely restored. And oh, those poor old unhappy war widows! Old ladies on the bus would scream at us young ones in mini-skirts, hitting us with their umbrellas and calling us whores, because we shaved our legs. Old men still kissed your hand and called you “gnädige Frau” (or even “gnädiges Fräulein”!), and they still referred to Slavic cities by their old Austro-Hungarian German names–Ljubljana was Laibach, Lviv/Lvov was Lemberg, Bratislava was Pressburg. The traditional greeting was “Servus!”, and some people still remembered old Jewish humorists speaking in their distinct Yiddish-Viennese dialect. Streetcars stopped running at about 10, which often meant, if the Opera had a long performance, you had no choice but to take a taxi home. There was little night life to speak of, except in Ball Season. International phone calls required going to the post office, where one waited in an old wooden cabinet until the call was put through.  Life still followed a rather ritualized pattern:  promenading walks on Sunday on the Kahlenberg,  formal balls during Fasching (with goulasch eaten at 3 a.m.), winter ski trips, visits to the Wienerwald in the spring to pick Bärlauch (a wild garlic, see, and excursions around the Danube and out to Grinzing’s Heurigen for new wine and Liptauerbrot in summer.  For a girl of the Golden West, this was all fascinating and romantic and new, but it did reek of another era, and old people wearing cloth coats and Lodenjacke did pervade the urban landscape. Hippiedom had not made it to Vienna, and never really did. Some demonstrations against the Vietnam War did happen at the university, and we all marched with the Communists and Socialists wearing red on May Day.


Despite the grayness of the weather and dreary Post-War apartment buildings, as well as a bit of sadness overlying the city, we were young and we loved every minute of this new Old World experience. We all got boyfriends and had our first serious romances, we went to a gillion balls in our white gowns (and, in a sign of some youthful flair, some of us even attended an Oben/Ohne Ball–a topless event at the Secession building!). We avoided any association with Americans, spoke only German on the streets, and began to eat like Europeans. Enchanted by all that music and art and Baroque architecture, we were exposed to culture, and to a kind of romance that we had never known existed in our suburban lives back home. I also now learn that it was indeed the case that we experienced in 1969-70 “a Hundred-Year Winter”, one of the coldest and snowiest of the century. No wonder we were all so cold in our little short skirts! But as a California Girl, I even found the weather a novel experience. There was, however, no escaping the fact that Vienna was not a hotspot for the youth of the 60s and 70s, and that the city’s innate conservatism was still a bit restrictive.

By the time I returned in the 1980s–then with a husband and doing research for my dissertation on an Austrian artist–Vienna was beginning to change. Signs of prosperity appeared everywhere: no more women in cloth coats but furs, most of the landmark buildings had been spruced up, and tourism was going gangbusters. Kärntnerstrasse, Vienna’s main shopping street, had become a pedestrian zone, the subways were beginning to run, and people were beginning to have cars and buy apartments. Still, the old trope of Alt Wien–meaning both Old World charm and old people–still applied. Bruno Kreisky, however, Austria’s great Socialist Chancellor from 1970 to 1983, transformed the country, initiating tremendous social reform and, as Wikipedia states, “parlayed a small country’s neutrality into a major moral and political role on the world stage.” ( Because of his reforms, Viennese seemed to be less anxious, more secure, in the 1980s. After years of some deprivation and sacrifice, citizens of Austria were beginning to reap the benefits economically.  Some of the old cafes still served Milchrahmstrudel and Nusstaschen, but franchises were popping up, too.  Supermarkets–big outlet shops on the edge of town or in industrial zones–were taking over from the old inner-city butchers and bakers, although those were still operating. For progress achieved since then, see my blog entries here for the months of October-December 2015.

Now, in 2019, I have just returned from a brief Viennese sojourn, perhaps my last one. I stayed at an apartment, part of a home exchange program, near Yppenplatz, a traditionally Turkish part of town, known for its open-air market, that has now become Hipster Central. The landlords of the apartment are a lovely young couple with two little children–a demographic that seems to be the norm now in this part of the city. Everywhere I looked were young families, with strollers and babies strapped to their chests. Skateboarders, edgy street art, and hip new cafes dominated the area around the marketplace. Everything seems much more open, less connected to that Viennese myth of Empire, and everything is wired. Young people are more likely to be using Germanisms, to the point that when I asked my young landlady why they said “Tschuss” instead of “Servus”, she looked at me skeptically and said that “Servus” was from Bavaria! (It’s not, but the Latinate form sounds stilted to them.) Their accents are not the old-fashioned lilting Wienerisch ones, although their idioms may reflect Austrian origins. These are young Viennese who I can’t see going to Fasching-season balls or even regularly out to Grinzing Heurige. They are, however, still tied closely to their families, they are keenly outdoorsy and athletic, love to travel to distant places like Indonesia, and are quite responsibly into “Bio” foods, organic products, limited plastic, and all things non-GMO. Good Europeans, they still abjure clothes dryers, microwaves, and excessive consumption.

The city itself reflects this youthful freshness, a livelier atmosphere. As the article in Die Presse would have it, the Vienna of Sisi (Kaiser Franz Joseph’s wife Elisabeth) and Klimt is old hat, and the city now ranks among the top 25 of hot places for young folks to go.  This status, along with its ranking as “the world’s most liveable city” by The Economist and Forbes Magazine, demonstrates that its old image as “Wien, du tote Stadt” is long gone. Still, one can find beloved Mozartkugeln, phenomenal pastries, and a very splashy, neon-infused Christkindlmarkt starting in November. The Bruegels are still there, in all their fascinating glory in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. It does seem to me a bit ironic that the Vienna that has been in my heart as the most special place for 50 years, has now, when I am a senior citizen, become a mecca for young people! I am so happy to know that the city I have loved for so long will continue to grow and change with the times, and that, having seen it in the last stages of its sad 20th-century distress, I was able at last to see it as so secure and so prosperous–so liveable.




Update: Three German Women

13 Aug

Maria & Bobby, ca. 1954


As I am just completing the first chapter for my Three German Women book (Maria’s chapter), I thought it would be a good time to recap where I’ve come to on this project, and where it’s going. This has been such a tumultuous year for us, so my writing regimen has been no regimen at all. But I have been making progress. Good news: I have made contact with Maria’s relatives, the children of her twin Gusti. They have given me lots of personal information about Maria and Bobby’s life together (and photos, like the one above).  The narrative has expanded exponentially, as I have learned of Maria’s connection to several other prominent people, most notably the historian George L. Mosse, who became a close personal friend of her family. I have also received permission to publish parts of Maria’s brother’s memoirs, in which he describes in great detail their lives on their country property at Löpten, outside of Berlin. This recounting captures very vividly a rural German lifestyle–prosperous country squire and family improving the lives of impoverished villagers–now completely gone, for better or for worse.  Maria’s story has been the happiest of my trio, and the easiest to write.

Of the other subjects:  Irmgard Kern’s story is the most complicated and harrowing, and has many gaps. Unfortunately, I was unable to visit with her son Vincent Rexroth as I had hoped to in May, and he has not been at all forthcoming with any responses to my queries. (What was the name of her beloved dog in the 1970s?) Thomas Elsaesser, who is hoping to republish Irmgard’s husband’s magnificent book (H.G. Rexroth’s Der Wermuthstrauch), is also waiting for further information, and has had to put his plans for that book on hold. I will try to tackle the writing of Irmgard’s chapter next, and hope that I can pull together what I already have accumulated about her fascinating life.  Her amazingly insightful “Autobiografie,” published in 1934 in the liberal newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung, is really my main motivation for wanting to see this book materialize. I have transcribed and translated the segments, and think this will be a major contribution to literature about the life of women in Germany.

Finally, Anna Spitzmüller, my AUSTRIAN German Woman, will shift my story from Berlin to Vienna. Here, too, I had hoped to fill in many gaps (what was her aristocratic mother’s name???) when we were in Vienna. While we had to cancel that planned trip, I am now hoping that I might be able to travel there for 10 days in October to complete some necessary research. Fingers crossed that my recovery from surgery is complete, and we can afford for me to take the trip.  I am also finding that my research skills are failing me somewhat: Spitzi had great interaction with the Monuments Men at the end of the War, but I have been lax in trying to wade through the daunting layers of official documentation at the National Archives and elsewhere to get any substantiation of her claims about these events. I need to be more dogged in figuring out how to tackle online these documents, not all of which are available digitally.

My biggest concern now, however, is the tone of the book, and what to include in the introductory chapter.  As my blog essays show, I wrote about these women who I had known purely for personal interest, and then, for reasons that I can no longer really clarify, decided that I should expand their stories into a book.  I chose to submit the book proposal to Cambridge Scholars Press simply because I knew the people there, and was pretty certain they would accept the book for publication.  Now I find that this very academic press may not have been the best choice for presenting these stories. Their formats are extremely boring, geared for densely textual manuscripts, with little interest in any kind of graphic design.  For the first time in my writing career, I am writing something that is meant to be presented in a more readable, less academic, format. I have spent my life avoiding the inclusion of “I” and “my” in my writing, and now have to figure out how to be more personal while still including all the information.  And I do want photos, which does not appear to be that desirable for this publisher’s rigid format instructions.

As for my introductory chapter, I have also had to remember that I am not obliged to be comprehensive–I’m not writing a dissertation, or trying to get tenure!  Since the literature on German history of the 20th century is vast, I have decided that I am going to write this chapter as a kind of bibliographic essay, referring only to the themes I want highlighted–the history of German women, women’s education, German responses to modernity and their relationship to the tumultuous events of their history. By emphasizing what I was looking for in the sources that I used to verify my opinions and themes, I don’t have to justify why I did not look at whatever materials others feel I “should” have included, if this were an academic exercise. As my first attempt at writing in a more intimate, journalistic style, and not about art historical topics per se, I am still grappling with how to divest myself of all those years of academic training!

So that’s where I am now, two weeks after major surgery, and with a new deadline from the publisher for the end of January 2020.  Wish me luck!  And please send any information you have about “my” women!


What I learned from our recent peregrinations

25 Apr

The whole fam damily, as my mother would say.  March 2019


We’ve been on the road since last August with one interlude at home, in way too many places, having so many adventures, mini (and major) traumas, and experiences that I really don’t know how to write about the whole thing. But that won’t stop me from trying! I think the best way to summarize this crazy year is with a few statistics, then some bullet points of aphorisms and life lessons learned.

Some statistics:

–We slept in 21 different rooms, so that’s 42 different beds (after 45 years of marriage, we always sleep in separate beds now)

–We have cooked in 11 different kitchens, both gas and electric, some fully equipped, some with as minimal appliances as a hot plate and microwave

–We took care of 10 cats,  including two requiring trips to the vet for injuries and operations,  and minded (briefly) one adorable dog

–[Sorry, Ziggy, I forgot the adorable dog]:



–We made only one flight, LA-Guadalajara and back, but 4 long bus trips in Mexico, and THOUSANDS of miles driving through California and the Southwest, in our trusty 8-year-old Honda Civic

–A lot of our time was spent in wintery climes, which has only convinced me more than before that cold places are not for us (a dilemma when trying to find an acceptable place to live where we can afford the cost of accommodation!). We experienced 4 major snow storms and lots of rain, including 2 so-called “bombogeneses” in Colorado, only one of which was a real terror of a blizzard

–We celebrated our anniversary in Denver, as we had planned, and my 70th birthday also in Denver, instead of Vienna as had been planned

–Instead of two months in Europe, we cancelled that trip and spent 6 weeks in Denver taking care of grandkids and returning 6 weeks earlier than scheduled to Pasadena, thanks to our houseguests who were able to find other accommodations. Here’s what I had to write to our European would-be hosts to explain why we weren’t coming:

We have just arrived in Denver to be with the kids after a rather harrowing drive through the Southwest!  Because of avalanches, the highway through the Colorado mountains was closed, so we had to drive around the mountains through Arizona and New Mexico in HORRIBLE weather. But we have finally made it to the kiddos!  We had to wait until we got here to make the decision: we cannot come to Europe for this trip!  The reasons:  G’s 93-year-old father is quite frail (he is here in Colorado), our kids are in serious temporary need of some childcare help (changing jobs, no nanny, and no money for temporary help right now), we both are having some health issues, and are exhausted after several months of ill-conceived travel peregrinations. We will probably lose our airfare, but it can’t be helped.  Hopefully Norwegian Air may accept my doctor’s advisory note and will refund, but I’m not counting on it.

Norwegian Air (or the travel agent through which we purchased the tickets online) did refund the airfare! AirBnB was another story….


And so what have been the “life lessons” of these travels? Here are a few:

–We don’t ever want to be landlords. Too much trouble, even if the tenants agree to look after the cats

–We really enjoyed our time in Oakhurst at my sister’s lovely place. Gorgeous river running through the property, all kinds of wildlife in evidence, quiet setting to write (and I did do SOME writing on my book). But we realized staying there that we would not be happy living permanently in a mountain community, with no hospital, limited health facilities other than an hour away down the mountain pass, no mass transit at all, and only a few cultural entertainments or activities (not to mention, dare I say it, rednecks). I just have to accept the fact that I am, as the Germans say, eine Asphaltblume–an “asphalt flower”, a city girl. Or at least a medium-sized town girl….with access to countryside!

__I love my new camera (a Sony Lumix DC-ZS70), and despite it unaccountably breaking in December and having to wait for a replacement, I was able to take tons and tons of photos, and get rather good at bird pics. I’ve learned this is a great pleasure for me


__Nature is the most soothing, the most unpredictably exciting way to escape the trials and tribulations of our noisy, complicated, at times agonizingly fractious world. The highlight of my time in Denver was discovering an owl’s nest on Bear Creek in Denver–and coming back to see her owlet as well! (Another thanks to my new camera!)

__True friends are revealed when one is stranded and they take you in

__Do not always assume that your aging friends are sane. This is a sad lesson to learn, and can cause some traumatic moments–and also the loss of long-standing friendships

__Winter has its pleasures, especially if experienced in relatively natural settings.  We still want to avoid the cold as much as possible. When we finally got back to Pasadena, we had been in relatively wintery weather for almost 6 months; we are now basking in the warmth and the verdant landscapes, while eating dinner on our porch.

__We love our grandchildren, and it was a joy to be with them for as long as we were. (See photo at the top!) Family does come first, and all that. But we also learned that at 70, we aren’t as spry and hardy as we were in our 30s. Lifting a 20-pounder, and wrangling a 3-year-old at the same time is best left to younger bodies. 

__Meeting family members that you never knew before–or at least not often seen since childhood–is lots of fun!

__Mexico is unbelievably rich in culture, and has the most diverse cuisine in the world. If it weren’t for the Mexican love of noise, the Mexico City traffic, and the barking dogs, we’d live there in a minute! We met some of the nicest, most cultivated, most dignified and humane, people we have ever known.

_The landscape of the West is vast, sometimes scarily empty and dry, sometimes boringly endless to drive through, sometimes after wet winters abundant and full of nuanced colors. We have been fortunate to see as much of it as we have, but these 10-hour days are long and take a toll…. 

__Finally–and this is the biggest lesson for us–we will never, ever again plan such  peripatetic travels! If we are going to travel for any length of time again, we will plan to go to ONE PLACE and stay in ONE accommodation, then make side trips from there. While our decision not to go to Europe was indeed largely because the kids needed us, it was also because we were exhausted and overwhelmed by the prospect of making so many arduous journeys, organizing so many transfers from plane to train to bus to plane again, after all the travelling we had already had to do.

Now that I have tried to analyze this tumultuous year–and I’ve left out a LOT–let me end by THANKING all the wonderful people we met, the old friends who were so kind and generous to us, and our family members who put up with us in so many ways!  WE LOVE YOU ALL!

Oh, one final cat: I realized I hadn’t included Henry, my sister’s most wonderful cat. Now one-eyed–we had to take him to the vet to have it removed and deal with him having on the Cone of Shame. He is gentle, a superb hunter, and just an all-round lovely old guy. Here he is among the green mossy trees




6 Mar



This is a story of kindness and generosity, easy-going hospitality and friendship. After several months of our perhaps ill-conceived peregrinations in an attempt to live more cheaply than at home, we found ourselves in a sticky spot, at 10 o’clock at night, with no place to go. Fortunately this happened in my hometown where I still knew people, so at 10:30 pm, in the middle of the week, I called up my old high school friend Ann. We had over the years briefly stayed in touch through Facebook, but had only seen each other a few times in the last few years.  Amazingly, in this age of not answering any phone numbers that one  doesn’t recognize, Ann picked up the phone! “We have had a bit of an emergency, could we possibly come and stay at your house tonight?” Without a hesitation, she and husband said “come on over!” We arrived with all our belongings, disheveled and shaken. After some explanation of our plight, they assured us that we could stay in their extra room for as long as we liked. And serendipitously, they were going away on a ski trip in a week, and would be happy to have us stay and look after their animals. It was almost as if the whole situation was meant to be!

We stayed for two weeks, walking their wonderful dog, making some meals for them, and basically relaxing in their comfortable neighborhood and trying not to impose on their daily routines. As this was my home town, where I hadn’t spent more than a day at a time in 30 years or more, we had lots of places to visit and ways to be away. But what made this visit so comforting for us was the fact that Ann & Pack didn’t just put up with us, they embraced us, made us feel at home. There was no friction, just acceptance, and enthusiastic conversations. For people like us who always worry that we are imposing, and who are often uncomfortable in company, this atmosphere was such a welcome relief–the kind of friends where you feel like you’ve been around each other for a long time. This may sound really corny, but it’s true: they emanate love. What a blessing!

So here’s to friendships that endure, here’s to kindness and acceptance! And for Peter, who knows us all and expects such things on my blog:  a photo of Ann’s cat Jinx, who even let me pet her, which she rarely lets anyone but Ann do!




Trotsky in Coyoacán

4 Nov



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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


A honey vendor on Plaza Hidalgo

Don’t go to the Zocalo on Saturday!

23 Oct



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What an amazing place is Mexico City!

How broken will our lives be?

21 Jul


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

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

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

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

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

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

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