My father Rudy

21 Jun


This picture is how I most vividly remember my father Rudy:  in a greenhouse filled with chrysanthemums, wearing Levi’s, a white t-shirt and (if dressed up) a plaid shirt. This photo was in a newspaper article about the moving of Shinoda Nurseries, where he worked, from Torrance to Santa Barbara in 1964, which must be why he was wearing the plaid shirt. When the nursery moved, so did we, which was fine with us: Santa Barbara was where Rudy grew up, where our beloved grandmother was who we visited every month , and where we had lived until I was 5.

He was born in Los Angeles of immigrant parents, his father from Prussia, his mother Norwegian, on the night Jack Dempsey knocked out Gene Tunney, September 22, 1927. (I know that last fact because my grandmother told my mother that they couldn’t find my grandfather that night, because he was at a bar listening to the fight on the radio.) He had a bit of a rough start in life, as did so many of his generation. Because his parents didn’t speak each other’s language, they spoke what was then referred to as “broken English”, so my father did, too. He was held back one year in kindergarten (!) so that he could learn to speak “proper” English; even as an adult, he still pronounced “under” as a German would. When he was 2, he had meningitis, and almost died; his eyes crossed, and he had to learn to walk all over again when he recovered. That he recovered is a miraculous sign of Teutonic hybrid vigor, I’m sure. He also grew up poor during the Depression, and ashamed of a much older and infirm father who didn’t work, while his mother supported the family at jobs as a housekeeper and cook.

My father’s salvation was that he had an enduring passion from the time he was very young: he loved working in the garden, and always knew that he wanted to do something with plants. We have photos of him still in high school, tending his mother’s yard and proudly showing off his vegetable garden. When he met my mother–on a blind date–he had just come out of the Army; it was at the end of the War, and he spent his 18 months’ service cleaning up in the Aleutians–a California kid who had never seen snow!

They got married in Santa Barbara in September 1948–as the saying goes, they “had to” get married, because I was on the way. They were both so young–Rudy was only 21 when I was born!–but that seems to have been the norm for that generation, along with, often, “having to” get married. And then in quick succession, they had three girls. Before he was 30, he had a houseful of females!  He really didn’t mind, I don’t think–he loved us all, and when he wanted to do boy stuff (he never completely grew up) he rounded up boys in the neighborhood to catch gophers or work on cars. When I was 3, he went back to college on the G.I. Bill; we moved to San Luis Obispo, where my sister Christa was born. He got a degree in Ornamental Horticulture from Cal Poly; I still remember going to his graduation when I was 5. Everyone was so proud of him. His first job out of college, secured through the aid of his favorite teacher Howard Brown, was as superintendent of the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens. We actually lived in the gardens, in a little house that is now the Gardens’ Conservation Center. Sounds idyllic to me now, but my father wasn’t happy as an administrator, and my mother hated living in the Gardens because she couldn’t have a TV antenna. Rudy wanted to be, simply, a grower–the term he used throughout his life. He hated pretentiousness and high-falutin’ titles. We stayed in Santa Barbara long enough for my sister Robyn to be born when we lived in Pilgrim Terrace, a housing development built for returning soldiers which, in true 1950s fashion, was swarming with kids. I think my mother was happiest there, because there were so many wives and children.  But my dad soon found another job, as the grower for Shinoda Brothers nursery in Torrance. We moved there in 1954, when Robyn was a brand new baby, and Torrance was growing by 1,000 new people a week. We were quite poor, but so was everyone else in the new neighborhood where we lived. My parents were quite social, but having no money, they had friends over for card games and barbecues.

Rudy was really a big kid in many ways, and kids loved him. He would fly a kite on a 5-mile string, and let it fly until we couldn’t see it anymore; when he lost it, we would get in the car to find where it had ended up. On the Fourth of July, he would make firecracker rockets, then hurry into the house when the cops came so that only the kids were scolded. He loved to barter for services: he would landscape someone’s house, and they would put down a floor for us. He sang “Ramona” in the shower every night, and even let us have a pet gopher, his sworn enemy, as a pet for a little while, then let us release him into the wild, despite his endless battles with the creatures in his greenhouses. He worried constantly about money, and the only time I really saw him depressed was when he wanted to give us something that he couldn’t afford to give. He wasn’t into sports at all–my mother and I were the baseball fans–but he liked to go deep-sea fishing (even though he wouldn’t eat fish!), and occasionally went hunting with friends. He loved the Indy 500, and would take me to the movie house with him in the days when the races were shown live at the Arlington Theater in downtown Santa Barbara. He always worked very hard, and we had one of the most beautiful yards in the neighborhood.

Now comes the hard part. Let me just put up again what I wrote about my own battle with alcoholism:

One of my earliest memories–not THE earliest, but the earliest scary memory–is of being in the car with my little sisters while my mother is trying to get the car keys from my drunken father so she can take us all away. My youngest sister was just a baby, so I must have been about 6. I have no memory of returning home, but I think my father came to the friend’s house the next day, remorseful, and we all came back. She never did that again, but we spent many insecure days and nights dealing with my father’s alcoholism. He was never violent–he was a gentle, sweet man, and everyone loved him–and up until the end of his drinking, he always had a job, but there were arrests and some dangerous behaviors. Meanwhile, my mother was hysterical a lot of the time, and we all just figured out ways to get away from home as soon as we could.

My mother said that when she first met him, he only drank occasionally. But by the time I was 6 or so, he was on an alcoholic path. He was a classic alcoholic, hiding bottles all over the place, passing out in his truck, and in the end, losing jobs after the employer had given him chance after chance to come clean. We just felt helpless to do anything. I was gone away at college when the fights with my mother got really bad; my sisters bore the brunt of these battles. Finally, my mother kicked him out of the house, and he tried to begin his own business, while still drinking.  This situation lasted until my mother divorced him and he hit his moral bottom, doing things that appalled him when he sobered up. And so he did stop drinking completely. He lived in a trailer on his little nursery patch in Ventura, he took care of his mother, and he and my mother took vacations together. My sister Robyn, who was always his favorite, worked for him, and all seemed to be going fairly well. He was thrilled to have a grandson, our son Max, and was delighted to visit and see him. He visited us in New Orleans, where we were living in the early 80s, and helped us put in a garden in our nearly-underwater back yard.

These are the last photos I took of him, with Max at Audubon Park in New Orleans, and in his classic pose of watering a garden. It had been such a nice visit.

Whenever I remember my father, I hear his voice on the phone the last time I spoke to him. We were coming out to California for a visit, and he called to let us know he would pick us up at the airport.  A few days after that phone call, my mother rang with the devastating news that he had died of a massive heart attack. He was 57. We–my sisters and I–have never quite accepted the fact that this happened. This happened in 1985, and I still hear his voice.

While this little memoir doesn’t do justice to this good man, I did want to introduce him to all the people I love who never got to meet him. This Esau line died out with him. That’s why we gave Max the middle name of Esau.  Rudy, you were a sweet father, and I never let you know that.


Immigration to European countries

7 Jun



As we are sitting in London, one day away from flying back to the U.S., I realized that I have not fulfilled my promise of finding out about immigration procedures to European countries as I did do for Australia and Mexico. I will try to do a brief run-through of procedures and possibilities for some of the countries we visited, although individual procedures vary greatly depending on the country. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say that in most countries, stipulations come down to the same things:  1) how much money you can bring with you; 2) whether you want to work in the country or are retired; 3) how and where one can apply; 4) access or not to healthcare; and 5) in some cases, evidence of language proficiency.

First tip, before I consider a sampling of individual countries: if you have any way of acquiring an EU passport–e.g., if your grandparents or parents came from a country in the current EU–GET ONE! It makes life much easier if you want to live, work, or just visit Europe often.

For Britain, according to online sites :

“Americans can visit the U.K. as a tourist and stay for up to six months – no visa required. To stay longer, you’ll need to qualify for a visa – family links, established business connections to the U.K. or dual citizenship with a Commonwealth country like Canada may help. Owning property, however, does not guarantee a longer term visa. The British government used to have a special entrance category for “retired persons of independent means” (defined as those having a minimum yearly disposable income of £25,000), but that was discontinued.”
Read more: How to Retire in the U.K. as an American | InvestopediaHow to Retire in the U.K. as an American | Investopedia
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And here’s the next bit from this same site:

“And now there’s Brexit: As the U.K. prepares to exit the European Union, much is up in the air.”  Who knows? The government certainly doesn’t. But if you have money/income, there will be ways to do it–IF you can deal with British weather!

Application: you will need to apply through a British consulate or embassy at home

Healthcare: non-citizens, even those who are granted permanent residence status, will not have access to national health, but will be required to purchase private insurance and to verify that they have full coverage before an application can be approved. Medicare is not recognized as coverage in Britain.

In Austria:

This one we know a little bit about, because we have already applied for a 6-month visa, and had hoped to apply for a permanent resident visa last year, but missed the deadline.

Here are some of the official sources as sent to us by our friends at the Austrian Consular offices in Los Angeles:

“In addition to the general requirements that are listed on our website ( this type of residence permit requires proof of Proof of basic language proficiency in German (presented in the form of a publicly recognized language diploma “A1”) and a secured income (rent, savings or other) that is twice the minimum income of the reference rate according to § 293 ASVG (currently 2x € 1.189,56 €,for a couple living in the same household.  

If you hold a University Degree, the Proof of basic language proficiency in German is not required.”

Application: for permanent residence visas, application can be made in Austria, or, after a certain date in November, from an Austrian consular office in the U.S.. There are quotas, and one must apply immediately once the official date of application is announced to be able to be considered before the quota is filled. The application process is elaborate and tedious, and the forms are entirely in German. (One can find services that will help with the application forms.) They also require that one submit birth certificates with an Apostille from the state office where you were born.

Healthcare: a retiree applying for resident status is not eligible for Austrian healthcare services, and must obtain and show proof of private healthcare insurance as part of the application process. Medicare is not recognized in Austria.

There are other kinds of visas for working and for students, and the requirements for these visas change from year to year.

Bottom line: it takes some patience, but if you are bringing along enough money, and are not going to be a burden on the Austrian state, permanent residency is possible.


Countries like Portugal and Spain are actively seeking foreign investment, and in exchange offer generous privileges in terms of residency:

“Non-EU residents looking to retire in Portugal can also take advantage of the Golden Visa scheme, which was introduced to attract investors from non-EU countries. This option is only open to third-country nationals who are able to fulfill at least one of these requirements:

  • purchase real estate with the value of at least EUR 500,000 or above
  • purchase of real estate property with a minimum value of EUR 350,000 for the purpose of refurbishing (properties must either have construction dating back more than 30 years or be located in urban regeneration areas)
  • make a capital transfer equating to EUR 1 million or greater towards the country
  • create at least 10 job positions
  • make a capital investment of EUR 350,000 or more towards research activities conducted by public or private scientific research institutions involved in Portugal’s scientific or tech systems
  • transfer a capital investment of at least EUR 250,000 to support Portugal’s local arts or the country’s national heritage sector
  • make a capital investment of EUR 500,000 or more for purchasing shares in investment funds or in venture capital geared to capitalise small and medium companies in Portugal.

Expats who acquire the Golden Visa are granted rights to the following:

  • a residence visa waiver for entering Portugal
  • permit for living and working in Portugal under the condition that they stay in Portugal for a period of seven or more days in the first year, and 14 or more days in the subsequent years
  • visa exemption for travelling within the Schengen Area
  • family reunification
  • application for permanent residence and Portuguese citizenship by naturalisation provided they fulfill all the requirements.”

Once again, if you have the bucks, everyone is happy to see you!  In Portugal, you will have access to national healthcare if you meet the requirements for residency, BUT you will also be taxed on your overseas retirement income.

Spain, Italy, and France also have comparable programs, requiring investment.

In summary, if you want to retire to Europe, and have sufficient funds to support yourself, you can do it.  If you are broke or have limited means, it’s a little bit harder, but it can still be done.  In every case, you should contact the local consular offices or embassy to get more detailed information on the processes and requirements.

I’ll be happy to do more research on these questions, but right now I have to pack up to return home!




Porto: Food and Street Art

2 Jun

As I went through the photos I’ve taken so far of our week in Porto, two themes seem to have especially captured my attention: food and street art.  So before I write about the travelogue sites, I thought I’d concentrate on these topics, which are always my favorite pleasures while travelling.

That Porto has such magnificent opportunities for good, cheap, unpretentious eating was not such a surprise, since we remembered how well we ate in Lisbon last year.  What we were not prepared for was the sheer number of inexpensive places and the discovery of new cuisines. On our first culinary outing, after a number of false starts (places too crowded, too many tourists, didn’t look quite right), we found a little restaurant right around the corner from our house. Since it was filled with locals, we figured it would be a decent bet–Portuenses, as citizens of Porto are called, take their eating very seriously. (Porto citizens are also known as tripeiros, tripe eaters, because during the 15th century they sacrificed meat which was shipped to battling sailors, while the people in town settled for offal. They wear the label with pride, even when they don’t eat tripe themselves).

lunch&rice_dongriffon_porto_may26 The restaurant, Don Grilon on Rua de Passos Manuel, was hopping; everyone seemed to know everyone, and the owner lightheartedly chided the waiter to take the orders more quickly. The man who sat down at the table next to us was obviously a regular, since everyone bopped him on the shoulder as they walked by, and brought him his meal without even asking what he wanted.  A little hand-written daily menu offered several choices, and since it was written in Portuguese, we just kind of  guessed, and then took the owner’s suggestions. When we asked if we should get a full or half meal of the Costeletas, pork cutlets, he laughingly made it clear that a full order would feed a stevedore.  So here’s what we got: a traditional side dish of rice and beans, along with our two pork chops and a whole plate of grilled fish, plus bread, salad and coffee. The price for this feast?  12 Euros. The atmosphere was cozy, too; we felt like members of the neighborhood.

We found our next day’s lunch venue again by chance. I was looking at Google Maps of our neighborhood, and found this oddly named restaurant on the other side of the Biblioteca Municipal, again just up the street from our place. I had no idea what kind of food they had or what the name, Tabafeira, meant, but it looked a bit foodie and interesting.

This one was, for me, a real find. The entire menu of Tabafeira centers on alheira, a traditional rural sausage mix with a fascinating history. Here’s what Wikipedia says about its origins:

The type of sausage that became known as “alheira” was invented by the Jews of Portugal, who were given the choice of either being expelled from the country in 1497 unless they converted to Christianity. Those who converted but secretly retained their beliefs avoided eating pork, forbidden in Judaism; this put them at risk of being noticed not to hang sausages, traditionally made of pork, in their fumeiros (smokehouses).[1] As a way to avoid attracting the attention of the Portuguese Inquisition or in rural areas the Portuguese Christians, they did make sausages, but with other meats, such as poultry and game, mixed with bread for texture.

Eventually, this very creative way to extend meats was adopted by Christian Portuguese as well, and remains a beloved reminder of old country cooking for most natives. The very earnest chef and staff of Tabafeira have adapted this peasant fare for contemporary diners’s tastes, and offer a delicious, if limited, array of variations of alheira dishes. They even make a vegetarian one!  We loved our versions so much that we went back again. 

Finally, our big splurge of a meal–at a grand total of about $28–came at a place recommended online by every travel site talking about Porto. A Grade restaurant is on a little side street near the River quay. It is so small and so smack dab in the middle of touristy Porto that we did have to wait a little while to get a seat (mostly because we didn’t want to sit with the smokers in the outdoors section). But oh, my, well worth the wait! George had rabbit, I had octopus–both of which were as tender as they could possibly be. Mariza, the great fado singer, played on the sound system, the smiling owner was elated that I recognized who she was, and the food tasted like something your very skilled Portuguese grandmother would make. At the end of the meal, the owner offered George a shot of what he says was the best port he has ever tasted. On the house!  If you are ever in Porto, EAT HERE!

As we always do, we do most of our own cooking while travelling, so trips to the markets and bakeries are always enjoyable expeditions. Porto has superb open market places, none more classic than the Mercado de Bolhão–an enormous covered block, where the farmers used to come in from the country with their wares. It now is only half full, but has a selection of everything from fish to flowers to herbs and ceramic tiles.

And pastries!  Unfortunately, I can no longer eat those delightful Portuguese delicacies, Pasteles de Nata, but there are plenty of other offerings to satisfy a sweet tooth. The beautiful Majestic Cafe is always crowded with tourists, but worth a visit if you can get in; if not, the same goodies are available all over town.

We have yet to get to Afurada, the little fishing village across the river that offers by all accounts the very best grilled fish imaginable, so we will have to report on that culinary experience once we get there. In any case, as far as we can tell, it’s nearly impossible to get a bad meal in Porto.

Perhaps because our place in Porto is right across the street from the city’s School of Fine Arts, we have been impressed by the great amount of high-quality street art found on walls and doors throughout the neighborhood. (And as you can see above in that third image, DT’s effect is felt as disastrously here as everywhere.)

The first street art I noticed I can only describe as truly clever student Dada, photomontages and collages made on paper and pasted to the walls.

Then there were the posters for Carnaval, just past, that seem to have been put up as empty-centered silkscreens, to be filled in by others. These showed up all over the city, so the urge to street art is not confined to the art school district.

We love the flippancy, the irreverence, and at times, the radical political statements expressed. My favorites: a recurring image of the Madonna with flaming cow, and a single poster I found indicating that Porto women also marched in January in solidarity with the Women’s March in Washington, D.C.

Finally, we discover in the unlikeliest locations ceramic tiles with some kind of artistic message. The tile with the head of Portugal’s most revered modern poet, Fernando Pessoa, appears all over the city, usually alongside other street art. The other photo is a tile we found outside the entrance to our neighborhood park, Jardim de São Lázaro. We fussed over what it could possibly mean, until our scientist son enlightened us: the chemical formula represents chlorophyll!  A fitting symbol when entering Porto’s oldest municipal park, opened in 1834.

As I knew we would, we like this city a lot:  great food, and signs everywhere of a creative spirit.

And cats, too!


Some thoughts before leaving Europe, perhaps for a long time

31 May


Before I begin this rather self-indulgent little essay, let me mention the photo above. This shows George standing in the middle of the medieval streets of the wonderful town of Porto, Portugal. These houses are still lived in, and most of them have been thoroughly modernized to contain electricity, refrigerators, and the internet. They are steps away from some of the best restaurants, and the cheapest, that we have experienced in a long time. I hope this gives a pretty evident indication of why we would, if we could, choose to live here than amid Los Angeles mini-malls in a country that is self-destructing.

That being said, we are one week away from returning to Trumpland, and are at this point still uncertain of what we are going to do when we return, and even precisely why and how we began this particular journey at the beginning of the year. In hopes of gaining some clarity of where we are now, I want to lay out a bit of our recent thinking about events and our own situation.  This is as much a way to organize my own thinking as it is a defense of what must seem to many as an extravagant waste of energy and money.

Last year, when we spent ten months in Europe, we really felt liberated and as if the whole journey was a lark, our last adventure before some kind of settling down to a “normal” retirement. We found it was easy to rent our house in Pasadena, to cover all the mortgage, property tax and utilities expenses, and then, because of the kindnesses of many European friends and the fantastic resources available through AirBnB,, and HomeAway, we were able to live more cheaply in Europe than at home.  I know most of our American and Australian friends still don’t believe this, but it’s true:  as long as our housing costs were covered in the U.S., our time in Europe was much cheaper, even with flights included. We didn’t stay in hotels, we ate out very rarely, we bought no clothes and very few souvenirs, and many times were able to stay places for free. We had a bit of a bequest that helped with the expenses, so that gave us some breathing room. We returned to Pasadena in June of last year.

So then what?  We still faced this overriding dilemma: WE CANNOT AFFORD TO LIVE IN OUR PASADENA HOUSE ON OUR RETIREMENT INCOME. That’s the situation which we have yet to resolve.  I don’t think any of our friends have any understanding of how limited our resources are. So while we were still unsure of our future plans, we kept our house on the rental websites, and soon had someone, a Huntington scholar, signed up to be in the house for four months, February-June 2017. AND he wouldn’t mind looking after the cats! Oh, I forgot to mention the cats: one of our biggest vexations about travels and moving around involves what to do about our aging kitties. That circumstance caused major trauma last year, when we had to take them to my sister’s house and pay her to look after them.  So finding someone to stay in the house with cats in situ seemed too good a deal to pass up. We still were unsure of where we would go for those four months, but hoped that we would take that time to find a less expensive place to live to see out our Golden Years. While we had returned in the chaotic atmosphere of the election campaign, we really didn’t imagine that the unthinkable could happen.

And then the unthinkable happened: the election. The next day, while reeling in grief at the prospect, our neighbor walked by our house, and called to me: “have you thought about Mexico?”  I hadn’t, but at that moment began organizing a stay in Ajijic, where we knew people.  I also determined, perhaps precipitously, that there was no way in Hell I was going to be in the country when the inauguration happened, so I arranged with friends to have them rent our place in January, and we went to Australia for that month. Since we are dual citizens, it only seemed logical to check out the possibilities of repatriating there. I was so in shock by the election outcome, and so afraid of what this meant for our family and friends (and the country in general), that I really did want to find out about the possibilities of living abroad. Being away from the U.S. for the first one hundred days of what I knew was going to be a disastrous non-presidency seemed at the time a very good idea. Finally, being the Europhiles that we are, we really had to spend some time on the Continent, and in our favorite places, to see if there was any chance of settling down here.

So as we end our stay in Europe, and before I write my travelogue entry about this beautiful town, here is what we have learned:

1) There is no escaping the frightening consequences of America’s catastrophic political decision. The effects can be seen and felt everywhere, and it’s just as depressing to contemplate perhaps the end of American democracy and certainly the end of America’s reigning international influence while out of the country as it is to contemplate that demise at home. We might as well try to resist and fight the good fight on native soil.

2) We can’t continue country-hopping forever; this is getting tiring. We need to find SOME place to settle, to deal with our stuff, our cats, and to feel that we have some space to call home.

3) We have familial responsibilities that we have to acknowledge. I really do want to be a part of my grandson’s life on a more regular basis than once or twice  year. And George still has a father to care for, if only at a relative distance. So we need to be somewhere that allows us quick access to Colorado, and that, alas, is probably not in Europe or Australia.

So there you have it!  We will still tot up all of our criteria, giving the pros and cons of each place we have visited. But in the long run, we just have to figure out some way to live on our very limited means for the rest of our lives, while being relatively near our family. Family and finances trump (now there’s a good word gone to waste!) all. I hope this hasn’t been too boring and self-reflective, but it has helped me sort through some confusions. And if any of you know a place in a blue state that has relatively decent weather (no snow?) and some cultural events and institutions, is near a major airport, and where we can find cheap rent or, even better, cheap houses to buy, please let us know!

And now I will close with my requisite photo of cats: this time next to cars on a neighborhood street in Porto. I will write of the delights of Porto (FOOD!) in a little while.


Madrid, in less than 2 days

27 May


While I feel a bit remiss not writing about Bratislava, where we stayed for a very pleasant week before travelling south, these short hops now happening at the end of our travels mean I’m running out of time (and energy) to write very much. These kind of frequent-flying jaunts are also very wearing on our poor old bodies–I don’t know how people stand those “If This is Tuesday, It Must be Belgium” kind of tours. My thinking when planning these layovers was that this might be our last trip for a very long time, and so the only chance to see the one last museum on my bucket list, The Prado.  (Well, I would also like to see The Hermitage, but have no desire to go to Russia). While we had early on planned two weeks in Porto, Portugal, at the last minute I added a 2-day stopover in Madrid, just long enough to allow us to visit that famous site.

And as luck and serendipity would have it, we actually managed to be in Madrid when one of my Lawrence students who now lives in Spain could arrange to visit us. Tammy Teschner, who I hadn’t seen since her graduation day in 1987, journeyed with a Taiwanese friend from Torrevieja, where she lives with her husband and two boys, the oldest of whom is now a freshman at Lawrence! Talk about feeling old: my Lawrence students are now all hitting 50.  But never mind: it was just lovely to see her again, and to meet her friend as well.  I was sincerely touched that Tammy would make such an effort to come see me. Teachers are always happy to learn that they are remembered!

And how nice it was to have someone with us who knew where things were in Madrid! Tammy had recommended the hotel where we were staying, Hostal Madrid, right in the heart of the city, and at bargain prices for either a room or an apartment room. We met at the iconic restaurant across the street from the hotel–Museo del Jamon, the Museum of Ham! You can see the product in the background of that photo of us. Since we were all quite tired from our travels, we decided to go that afternoon to a smaller museum that Tammy  remembered fondly.  The Museo Sorolla, the studio/home of the society painter of the late 19th century, Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923), is located right in the heart of Madrid. Beautiful grounds and lovely displays, not only of Sorolla’s paintings, but of his own collections of ceramics and furniture. My favorite part was the photographic display, including an extraordinary image of Sorolla done by the American Gertrude Kaesebier when the Spanish artist visited New York for his exhibition at the Hispanic Society in 1909. The image is as modern as an Irving Penn. And check out his painting of a woman with a camera! We’re always excited to find such images.

Since it is at this time of year in Madrid not getting dark until about 9 p.m., and given the Spaniards’ penchant for doing everything late, the streets around our hotel were packed with Madrileños doing the evening stroll and drinking at bars. Tammy persuaded us to visit the Plaza Mayor and surrounds, but that was about it for me that evening.  The plaza included for some reason a gigantic head of Goya, which I took as a good omen for the next day of Prado viewing.


And in the morning, andamos! To my complete surprise, the Prado was within walking distance of our hotel. I had always envisioned it as being miles outside of town, for some reason. (This isn’t the only surprise in my misconceptions of Madrid: it’s a much more open, bright, and elegant city than I had imagined. ) After a lazy stroll through the streets and a mandatory coffee stop, we made it to the museum.

And in one of my only direct bits of advice to other travellers:  it is completely worth it to buy Skip the Line tickets online before visiting the Prado!  The queue to get in when we arrived was already at least an hour’s wait long; we instead went around to the side entrance and got in immediately, no waiting at all. Definitely worth the 18 Euros.

I must say that the building was not at all what I envisioned; I was expecting it to be more along the lines of Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, a gigantic historicist structure with labyrinthine rooms. I had already told Tammy and Dee that I would head directly to the only works I wanted to see: Bosch, Velazquez, and Goya, with a few bodegones (Spanish still lifes) thrown in. And that’s what we did: we found on the guide the quickest way to The Garden of Earthly Delights.

At this point, I really didn’t know that in the Prado you are not supposed to take photos, even with out a flash. So I just started snapping away, until I was told sternly that photos were not allowed. Why, I do not understand: when other museums which I would assume are more uptight than the Prado about proprietary rights on paintings, such as the Kunsthistorisches, allow photos everywhere, I don’t see why this museum would continue to prohibit picture taking. Well, never mind, I continued to take them whenever I could get away with it. Unfortunately, the Bosch paintings are really meant to be studied for their phantasmagorical details, which are hard to photograph on the sly. I did get the cat and birds from the right panel of the Garden, at least. And Tammy was able to capture me in my natural element:  looking at paintings in a museum.


800px-El_Tres_de_Mayo,_by_Francisco_de_Goya,_from_Prado_thin_black_marginAlas, the Goyas were the most eagerly guarded, which is too bad, because by far the most moving, most arresting, most prickles-up-the-spine painting for me was Goya’s “Third of May.”  It was bigger than I thought, and in person, so much more affecting than in reproduction.  The first truly modern depiction of the insanity of war, with that almost assembly-line machine of death squads, and one anonymous illuminated figure before the instant he is shot to join the other dead on the ground beside him. How many lectures have I given on this work? It makes all the difference to see it in person.

But again, I wonder why the Prado won’t allow photos? This image, as with most others in the collection,  is in the public domain, so I can copy a photo of it off the web. I then thought perhaps it was because they want everyone to buy reproductions in the gift shop, in which case they should improve their game in that area. I was very disappointed at the quality and selection of post cards available there.

What I so love about Goya, and what the Prado demonstrates so effectively, is that he transforms so dramatically from an 18th-century painter of royalty and aristocrats at play to one of the most searing depictors of the darker sides of humanity. The museum’s second floor had a wonderful display of those earlier works, so Spanish and so realistic, of people at leisure, having picnics and dancing. But even here, in my favorite piece of maidens blanket tossing a doll (or is it a man?), one begins to see Goya’s transformation at the end of the 18th century to a commentator on the human condition.

And then, downstairs, an entire room is filled with his shocking “pinturas negras”, those exceedingly dark images that covered the walls of his house, the Quinta del Sordo (House of the Deaf Man). The most modern painter imaginable, having no illusions about man’s capacity for superstition, irrationality and violence.



Velazquez was almost impossible to capture, Las Meninas surrounded by school children and the magnificent giant portraits that so inspired Manet vigilantly watched over by a particularly grouchy guard.  But what a brilliant painting about the act of painting Las Meninas is! I would have liked to get closer and stay longer in that room, but we had masses to contend with by that time.

Finally, what would a trip to a collection of Spanish art be without a look at those spectacular examples of still life done by the bodegonistas Sanchez Cotan and Luis Melendez? I have no idea why I find these works so soothing, so contemplative, and so masterful in execution. The museum’s wall labels are good in pointing out that there is a difference in interpretive meaning between these painters:  some such as Sanchez Cotan and Zurburan, are often creating metaphorical representations in their depictions of fruit and ceramics, while others such as Melendez are presenting purely factual depictions of the objects in front of them. Guess which one is which.

After two and a half hours of non-stop masterpieces, we were sated with art.  We went to a nice restaurant where we had the menu of the day–Tammy informed us that by law, all Spanish restaurants must offer a reasonably priced daily meal, which makes it possible to eat in an nicer place for a decent price, which seems a great idea for a people who so love food.


Finally, our brief sojourn in the Spanish capital on a surprisingly hot day ended with a walk to the Mercado San Miguel, whence comes the photo of us at the top of this blog. Having friends around to take pictures which include both of us is a real treat!  The mercado was so crowded and so hot and so overpriced that we ended up sitting out on the plaza instead. But it was a great way to end our stay in this buzzing city. I completely underestimated its charms, and wish that we had had more time to see more of it.  On to Porto!

Pecs–or in German, Fünfkirchen

21 May

Szechenyi Square, Pecs

We would have had no idea that this invigoratingly attractive little town even existed if we hadn’t been staying on Lake Balaton in the region that our Eyewitness Guide defined as “Southern Transdanubia.”  That section of the guide gave an inviting description of the place, only two hours away by car.  During our trip to Budapest, we found out that all those Zsolnay tiles and ceramics we were seeing had been made in Pecs. So we were curious to see this place that seemed to us to be far removed from European cultural centers, but which had been selected in 2010 as the European Capital of Culture.

After driving through pleasant green hills and a host of small villages, we came into Pecs on a road like any town’s outskirts, with car dealerships and tattoo parlors. Parking in the lot of a shopping center that could have been in any Australian or Midwestern town, we walked up out of the lot’s bowels to find ourselves in front of…another synagogue!  On one of the main squares named after the great Hungarian patriot Kossuth, the synagogue was an absolute gem–still a bit shabby around the edges and in need of some repair, but we were welcomed in by the friendliest man at the entrance, and directed to a set of placards throughout the interior that gave the history of the Jewish community in Pecs, both in Magyar and in English. The story is, of course, as heartbreaking as all of the others in this part of the world: at its height, the community here numbered at least 6,000; in 1944, the Hungarian Nazis known as Arrow Cross rounded them up and sent them all to Auschwitz. Only 500 survived. The displays do tell this part of the community’s history, but also focus more happily on the contributions to Pecs by its Jewish citizens. It was all so welcoming and charming, and the 1870s interior, with painted decorations, was delightful. And look who contributed to its renovation: USC!

We then walked past the Kossuth monument–one to Kossuth seems to appear in every Hungarian town–and up to Jokai ter, one of the historic center’s squares, where we found Az Elefantos Cafe among many other superb offerings for a great lunch. It was becoming increasingly clear to us that Pecs is a buzzing, hip university town–and indeed it is! It is home to the first university in Hungary, in fact, founded in 1367, and today has about 30,000 students. We were charmed by the expansiveness of the squares and the cozy location of the town up against green hills that are now a national park.

The town’s greatest claim to fame, at least for history buffs, is its concrete evidence of the extended presence in Hungary of the Turks. As my guidebook says, “No other city centre in Hungary is quite so dominated by a former mosque as Pecs’s Szechenyi ter, yet no other city seems quite so at ease with the fact.”

The Gazi Kasim Pasha Mosque was built on the site of a Gothic church in 1579, and has a 28-meter high dome. As soon as the Turks were routed in 1702 (by “our beloved Prince Eugene,” as my Austrian teacher used to call Eugene of Savoy), the building was changed into a Christian church, and is now The City Parish Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Tit for tat! Although a “Christian” extension has been added to the original mosque, evidence of its Islamic origins remain, in some Arabic writing on the central wall, and in a prayer niche in the domed center. And there is that fantastic dome!  The Jesuits pulled down this mosque’s minaret in 1766, but there is yet another mosque converted to a church in town that still retains its minaret. Unfortunately, we ran out of time to visit that building, as with so many other sites in this fascinating town.

For us, the highlight of the visit, and the place where we spent most of our time, was the Zsolnay Museum, location of the most magnificent works of that vaunted figure, Vilmos Zsolnay (1828-1900), creator of all those tiled surfaces and roofs that we had seen in Budapest (and, it turns out, in Vienna as well). Located in the oldest building in Pecs (from the 14th century), the collections are simply mind-bogglingly prolific and diverse.


Iridescent tiles made in the 1890s.

Zsolnay began his career in the ceramics factory of his family, which made garden pots and pipes. He had always wanted to be a painter, so along with his technical training decided to apply his newly invented techniques to artistic designs and objects. By the 1860s, he had developed important new glazes for ornamental ceramics, and by the end of the century was in the perfect position to be at the forefront of the aesthetic directions that defined the Central European version of Art Nouveau, the Secession style. He became wildly popular for his iridescent glazes (shades of Tiffany at the very same time) and was known especially for a blue metallic method that one started to see in vases and tiles throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  His factory employed the best designers from Vienna and elsewhere, who produced the most elegant decorative pieces for public spaces–roof tiles, fountains, and garden ornaments–as well as the designs that defined the Secession period.  Zsolnay was lionized and received medals at every World’s Fair across Europe. The factory continued to produce the Zsolnay trademark blue-glazed objects until the end of World War I, when Hungary lost Transylvania to Rumania, and Zsolnay thus lost his source of necessary raw materials. The company is still in operation, and still produces luxury porcelain, but nothing on the scale or with the same aesthetic variety of Vilmos Zsolany’s heyday.

The diversity of Zsolnay’s experimentation with materials and styles is what impressed us the most. What was a bit depressing was that absolutely no one was in the Museum, and the guards acted like they hadn’t seen a soul in weeks.  They were also completely indifferent about the collection, and even if they could speak English, didn’t know a thing about the holdings or the building, and didn’t seem to care to learn. We decided that perhaps they were military-age students who were fulfilling their service obligation by being guards in the Museum. In any case, we can only encourage anyone who visits Hungary to seek out this extraordinary place in this elegant little town.

There was so much else to see in the town, but we had no more time.  I really recommend a visit to anyone who is in the vicinity–or make it a special stop when in Central Europe!

Bonus for the day:  on our way to and from Pecs, we saw storks in their nest!  Hungary is very proud of its stork population, the ones who return every year from their migration to Africa.  I was so excited to have one pose for me!

Finally, while some of my followers insist that I include a cat photo in all my blog posts, on this trip I only saw some funny dogs. These two were in front of a dress shop on the square where we ate lunch, and they presented a entire movie of charming entertainment as we ate.

Visit Pecs! You’ll love it!

Backtrack: Budapest

19 May


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!