Some thoughts before leaving Europe, perhaps for a long time

31 May

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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, sabbaticalhomes.com, 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.

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Madrid, in less than 2 days

27 May

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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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.

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Altenburg and Buchberg: art at opposite ends

16 May

After a bit of a tiff with the German landlord of our Hungarian rental, we left Somogyszentpal a few days early, and through the kindness of our friends Nora and Wolfgang, returned to Gars to regroup. We are so happy we did, for the weekend offered us artistic and intellectual treats in abundance. That old chestnut, “a study in contrasts”, at least artistically, certainly applies to our experiences back in the Austrian countryside.

Our friends had mentioned to us before that they would like us to visit their friends in the castle-town around the corner who had an extraordinary art collection, but the couple were away when we were first in Gars. This time they were able to arrange for a visit.

And so we travelled to Schloss Buchberg, literally the next bridge over across the Kamp River from Nora’s house.  The owners Dieter and Gertraud Bogner have lived here since the 1960s–or, rather, have been in possession the castle since then. It is one of those historic properties that dot the Austrian countryside, with origins back to the 12th century.  After centuries of renovations, additions, different owners and finally bankruptcy, the castle came to Herr Bogner’s father, not entirely derelict, but having lost many of its original elements. Since the 1980s, the Bogners have turned the castle into a working space for artists they invite to create site-specific works and Conceptual art.

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Frau Bogner came to greet us in her gardening clothes, and could not have been a more charming and enthusiastic host. When she learned that I had written my dissertation on Anton Romako, we shared all kinds of memories of Viennese art historians we have known. She led us through the castle grounds, beginning with their most important piece, the Star of David Pavilion by the American artist Dan Graham. We then were led through the Schloss’s inner courtyards, also filled with conceptual pieces (including a sound sculpture by the Austrian Bernhard Leitner), and into the many rooms of the Schloss, where artworks were integrated into the most astonishing spaces, in rooms dating from the Renaissance to the 19th century. I must admit that I was more interested in the unbelievable collection of gorgeous Kacheloefen–ceramic ovens–in each room than I was in the perceptually nuanced efforts of the artists. But I am so impressed by the Bogners’ sensitivity to preserving historic property while allowing artists the freedom to explore and create within these spaces. Documentation is also a large part of their ambitions, and a whole room is devoted to archiving the artists’ plans, models, and proposals.  An exhilirating and stimulating day! Thank you, Wolfgang and Nora for introducing us to these extraordinary people!

After that splendid Saturday, we decided to revisit Stift Altenburg on Sunday.  When we last went, only the Church was open, and the day was freezing; this Sunday, everything was open to the public, and the sun was shining brightly.  We were able to wander through the sumptuously painted rooms  and gorgeous grounds all by ourselves.

Sumptuous is hardly an adequate word for the phantasmagoria of color and narrative effusiveness created here! Most of the elaborate scheme was initiated in the 1730s by the Abbey’s visionary abbot Placidus Much, and the project seems to have been his own quite grandiose idea. He employed the best Austrian painter of the time, Paul Troger, to complete not only the iconographically elaborate Church decorations, incorporating stories from Revelations (that’s how the dragon got there!) and the Old Testament that were meant to demonstrate Good triumphing over Evil, but also the ceiling of the Library, and the even more ambitious fresco cycle over the Grand Staircase.

But the most extraordinary aspect of the Abbot’s vision, to my mind, was the painting of the crypt–that part of the abbey where the monks and abbots were to be buried.

Unlike most funereal settings, and especially in a place as spiritual as an abbey, where such spaces are meant to be solemn and subdued, this crypt is bursting with busy color and boisterous vitality.  This is apparently exactly the style that Abbot Much wanted. Troger does include some figures of Death in the form of skeletons shooting arrows and hovering over rich ladies, but the mood of the room is positively lighthearted.

Curators in the Abbey have arranged an entertaining and illuminating exhibition outlining Much’s enlightened aims in creating such complex iconography. They have produced games to explain the mythological references in the paintings, as well as participatory labels that invite the viewer to contribute questions and opinions about the images being viewed. In the Library space, which is no longer much of a functional library, they ask viewers to fill out forms giving the title of the books that have most influenced them and leaving the forms on a library shelf, to see if the Library might acquire them for the Abbey’s collection.

This kind of didactic information was particularly helpful in deciphering the meaning of Much’s pivotal scheme, the design for the paintings of the Grand Staircase.

Abbot Much would be pleased by their efforts, since he said that without an understanding of what the figures were meant to represent, the paintings would be nothing but decoration. Here he directed Troger to depict the theme of Faith and Wisdom creating Truth. Faith and Wisdom are shown holding hands in harmony, surrounded by depictions of the arts and sciences, as well as Love (shown as a mother with children). Finally, Truth is represented as a half-naked woman holding the sun. Pretty risque for a monastery, don’t you think?  At the time, it must have been astonishing, bristling with meaning in debates in the Church about the place of knowledge and religion in people’s lives.

Finally, the Abbey has fine gardens, from little contemplative spots to grand representations of the World’s religions. After concentrating on deciphering the complexities of 18th-century theological iconographies, it was a relief to step into nature again, just as it was after struggling with Conceptual artists’ ideas at Schloss Buchberg. A thoroughly enlightening and enjoyable weekend!

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Serendipities

12 May

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One of the real joys of travelling and being open to whatever comes along is the possibility of those serendiptious moments that allow you to be taken into people’s  everyday lives or to be shown kindness by strangers. We experienced two of those occasions in Hungary, and one of them involved piglets.

At the beginning of our stay in Hungary, I came down with a particularly vicious bout of urinary tract infection, an affliction that I have had in the past. While I did have some medication, I needed to see if I could find the other tablets that offer relief. I found a pharmacy next to Tesco, and brought my old bottle with prescription information, in hopes that that would help with communication. The pharmacist spoke very little English or German, as is bafflingly often the case in Hungary.  She found that my particular medication wasn’t available, so I tried to ask her if she had any other preparations she could offer. She didn’t understand what I was asking. Suddenly, the man standing in line behind me came up to the counter and asked me in perfect English, “How can I help you?”  He turned out to be another pharmacist from the Big City; he asked me all the right questions about my condition and what I had done for it already. Together he and the other pharmacist discussed the possibilities, and came up with some solutions–ones that I would not have been able to get without this man’s help. And the preparations worked!  What are the chances of this happening in this tiny town in the middle of Hungary at that particular moment on that particular day?

And in an even lovelier example of serendipity, we come to the piglets, related to the photo at the beginning of this blog.  We decided to take some very rugged country roads to explore the countryside near our village up to Lake Balaton. Purely by chance, we turned the wrong way at Fonyód , but seeing a restaurant nearby we decided we might as well stop and have lunch before getting back on the “right” road. As we came up to the parking area, we noticed that there was a crowd of rather well-dressed people heading for the entrance of the restaurant; we assumed this must be a private party of some kind, a wedding or the like, so assumed we had better look elsewhere for a meal. But as we headed back to the car, we noticed that the restaurant had a pen with pigs and new baby piglets–we had to go see them! Standing next to the pen was a young woman with a bouquet of flowers, also admiring the babies. Being always curious even when he recognizes that the person may not understand him, George asked her, in German, if she was the object of celebration at the party. She turned out to speak perfect American English! She was indeed being celebrated, and was being feted by her family for her graduation from high school–hence the bouquet. She was more than happy to communicate in her perfect English, and was a real spark. When we were just about to leave after our piglet viewing, saying that we thought the restaurant was serving them as a special occasion, the aunt– who was standing with us and who also spoke perfect English–said she would ask the owner of the restaurant if we could join them, too! The mustachioed owner said why not, as long as we were willing to eat the same menu as the party.

And so we were able to experience this lively young woman’s special day–her name was Blanca–while sitting to the side of their long table filled with family and friends. Just look at how proud her beaming parents are! She loves to travel, and so when we were leaving, I gave her my card and told her to look us up if she ever came to California. She was so pleased, and gave me a big hug.

The restaurant was also a real find: in the same family for 100 years, in a 250-year-old wine cellar. The waiter, the owner’s son, spoke English, German, and Spanish, and was proud to tell us the history of the building. We had as part of the lunch a fruit soup–a traditional celebratory dish–and finally a cherry strudel made by the waiter’s mother that morning.

It was a lovely day, and we have the piglets to thank for it.

Things I’ve learned about Hungary–so far

7 May

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At this point I can no longer remember why I decided that we should come to a very small village in the vicinity of Lake Balaton, Hungary, for two weeks of this trip. I think the notion to be in Hungary began because I was amazed that in all my time in Vienna, I had never crossed into the other half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and people who knew me were astonished that I had never been to Budapest. As for the decision to come to this resort region: all I can reconstruct now is some vague idea that seeing this part of the country would expand my understanding of how Austria and Hungary were connected; we have often been so close to this border in Austria that we could look into the Hungarian countryside. Another factor was, I think, that all the rentals in Budapest were too expensive! In any case, the consensus of our Austrian friends has been that two weeks here is a bit much, and that we would be bored out of our minds in a few days. I know what they mean–I’m sure I’d say the same thing if a friend said he was going to spend two weeks at Lake Havasu or the Nevada desert–but so far we have found more than enough to do and explore, despite rainy weather and some discomfiting ailments.

We are in the tiny village of Somogyszentpal, a place with only two roads in and one of them is so rugged that it hardly counts as a road.  I found this little romantic-seeming cottage on HomeAway–what an amazing thing the internet can be! And from this vantage point, and at this time of year, this is what I have observed and learned so far about this proud little country:

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The village church, Somogyszentpal

**Despite being a largely Catholic country, historically Hungary has harbored many different religious sects. During the Reformation, and probably because of opposition to Habsburg rule, the country embraced Calvinism, Unitarianism, and Lutheranism, as well as every different type of Orthodoxy. Under Turkish rule, of course, Islam also entered into the mix.  All of this resistance to Catholicism may explain why the churches, even though Catholic, appear so severe and unornamented. Inside of the small village churches, the walls are usually whitewashed, and altars and Stations of the Cross are added as wood carvings or plaster artifacts. Even the more significant churches appear rather subdued on the exterior, when the interior are elaborately painted.

**Although a resort location that half of Hungary visits in the summer, no town or village in the area has a laundromat! We are at a loss to understand what people are supposed to do to wash clothes. Since the owner of the cottage we’re staying in has declined to put in a washing machine, we have had to wash things one at a time by hand, and finally had Rosi, our neighbor, offer to wash things in her machine. This lack would seem to be a golden opportunity for some eager entrepreneur to invest in:  just a few locations in places like Keszthely, Marcali, and Tapolca.

**The reason Magyar, the famously indecipherable language of the country, is so frustrating for foreigners is because the words are in Roman script, and so appear to be approachable for Westerners. But when one tries to make out the words, not a single syllable or root has any relationship to any of the other Western languages.  So one confronts the letters and is certain that SOMETHING will make sense, but nothing does. The other intriguing thing is that despite speaking this language that nobody else understands, Hungarians are not enthusiastic about learning other languages. Unlike the Finns or the Danes, who recognize that their language is too limited to be learned by others and so they must learn to communicate in other languages as a matter of course, the Hungarians are fiercely proud of their language and hold on to it intently. Whereas Swedish and Slovenian universities teach many of their classes in English, Hungarian universities do not. We have found that most people just keep talking Magyar to us, even when we make it clear that we have no idea what they’re saying. We find the sound of Magyar quite pleasing, and people are nothing if not kind despite the language barrier.

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**Recently, in keeping with what seems to be a distressing trend, the Hungarians have elected their own Donald Trump: Victor Orban, who has made so many reactionary and corrupting decisions that even other conservative leaders have made him retract his orders. He came to real power once the refugee crisis began in Europe. The Hungarians were strenuously opposed to the floods of refugees entering the country, and refused to take in any number of those fleeing Syria and elsewhere. While Hungarians can be prone to gloom in the best of times, this situation has led many to even greater bouts of moroseness, while Orban’s dictatorial hold on power continues.

**Economically, Hungary is in the doldrums, although the recent popularity of Budapest with trendy folks has made for some improvements, if only evident in the more touristy parts of the city, but not in the rest of the country. On the plane to Vienna, we read an article in the London Financial Times about all the hot properties in Budapest, but this really did seem geared toward the elite end of the market. A 2014 study found that 1 in 2 Hungarians live on less than 260 Euros a month, and that more than 250,000 children are undernourished.

**The place where we have noticed the most fascinating evidence of how dramatic a border change can be is in the example of bread. Austria–literally yards away from Hungary–has some of the best, most diverse, varieties of hardy breads, the kind that make Germanic types consider bread the staff of life. Cross the border into Hungary: the bread is awful! Mediocre white bread, very little variety, and even searches in bakeries yield perhaps a whole grain that doesn’t hold a candle to a loaf one could buy at the Austrian supermarket Billa. How/why does this happen?

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Bondi, the only fully domesticated cat we’ve met in Somogyszentpal

**The Hungarian people are quite diverse in appearance, with all shapes and sizes, from dark hair to the lightest blondes. This is only to be expected, given that the country has been conquered and pillaged for centuries by every group of invaders imaginable. Even the cats are diverse–orange and white, calico, gray, lots of black and white ones, but I haven’t seen any tabbies.

**There are many, many Gypsies in Hungary (about 400,000!), all Roma or Romani, but of every variety of assimilation. Our neighbors here in the village, who act as caretakers for this house (the owners are German) are Roma, but of the more assimilated sort, who have a reasonably nice house, have worked in Germany, are gainfully employed, and have never been wanderers. According to locals, there are hierarchies of Gypsy groups: at the top the assimilated ones, at the bottom those who are very dark-skinned and look like they come from South India. We have seen wild and ragged groups of these kind,  living in near hovels on the edge of the village, and in huge family bunches buying food at Tesco (yes, there is a Tesco on the outskirts of Mancali, a town 10 km away from here). Apparently, very few Gypsies still live in wagons and travel throughout the countryside. In any case, they are still the minority most maligned and mistreated. I must admit that I have rarely seen a group of people so frightfully feral in my life.

**The region around Lake Balaton, and indeed throughout Hungary, is filled with thermal baths, which the natives take to as enthusiastically as the touring Germans. I had no idea that this region was volcanic (all of them now extinct), thus the enormous number of hot springs. Thermal spas are also a huge money spinner, as places such as Heviz, with the largest natural thermal lake in Europe, attract health seekers from around the world, who come here on tours to putter around on plastic floats in the mildly radiated waters that are supposed to cure any number of ailments. Signs for “Wellness Centers” abound around Lake Balaton, and offer all kinds of treatments.  I’m going to go get a massage and paddle around in the muddy waters tomorrow; George thinks it’s all nonsense and can’t imagine why anybody would get into an irradiated pool.

**Hungarian architecture swings from the traditional thatched house of the Plains to Secessionist elements to some bizarrely “folkloric” styles for public buildings and restaurants that seem to refer to some romantic and phantasmagorical adaptation of vernacular forms.  I must do some more study of this, but all these excessively pitched red roofs, with ornamental sculptures at the peak seem to be everywhere. Kind of kitschy-pretentious, if you ask me, but they must fulfill some nationalist sentiment.*

housewithhorns_1877_somogyszentpal_may2The most fascinating aspect to me is the number of domestic houses that look ever so much like a Texas ranch-style country house. These often involve an arched walkway along the side of the house, and each room must be entered separately. The front of the house will contain the kitchen and a main room, perhaps a dining room, then the bedrooms are along the walkway.  It almost looks sometimes as if they add on a room each time they have a child or need another space for some reason.

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**Hungary has 20 different wine regions, all of them producing different varieties, many of which are claimed to be world class varieties.  Only a few of these are known outside of the local region.

**The history of this region is so complex, and involves so many conquests, re-conquests, ancient resentments about regions taken away from nations, that one can hardly make sense of what was considered Hungary when. Transylvania is the real sore spot: given to Rumania after World War I, the region still is home to some 2 million Magyars, the Szegedi, and Hungary has never forgotten this slight.

One fascinating example of this ethnic diversity is the story of the Festetics family, Croatians who came to Kezsthely on Lake Balaton in the 16th century, made a bundle in land (i.e. real estate!), were ennobled by Maria Theresa in the 18th century, and made Kezsthely their own personal fiefdom. They were enlightened rulers, built an enormous palace and accumulated a superb library. They thrived throughout the Dual Monarchy, and suffered the fate of all aristocracy after World War I.  The Palace, now open to the public, contains other amusing examples of Hungarian pride in identity:  in the Maria Theresa Room, the Empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and her son Josef II are identified in the labels only as the rulers of Hungary. No mention is made of Austria at all.

**Another ethnic example: we found in our Eyewitness Guide a reference to a folk museum in the village of Buzsak, only a few miles from our village as the crow flies, but since marshes lay between the two spots, one has to go a rather roundabout way to get there. The museum is charming, and plays up the fact that this particular part of the region was populated by Croatians who maintained their own language and culture well into the 20th century.  The ladies of the village who were there to sell their embroidery, and all the labels in the museum, emphasized that these designs and motifs were Croatian rather than Hungarian, even though they have been here for hundreds of years.

**One final note:  the near-sanctification of “Sisi”, Empress Elizabeth, Franz Josef’s wife, is evident everywhere in Hungary.  She was beloved by the Hungarians because she learned the language and preferred to spend her time in the country outside the stifling atmosphere of the Habsburg court.  Statues of her appear everywhere. As a friend of mine says, in Austria Sisi is just a tourist doll, while in Hungary she is a saint.  I was so amused to capture this image of these ladies reading the plaque below her statue on Lake Balaton.

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*I want to thank my friend David Lightfoot for steering me to the most likely source for this fantastical architecture: Imre Markovecz, who worked mostly in the 1950s and was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and Rudolf Steiner.  http://www.pbase.com/helenpb/makovecz