Sunday, December 26, 2010


Bob’s flight from Minneapolis to Paris arrived about four hours late, and our train from Rome arrived about two hours late – yet happily we all arrived in Paris, before the snow and ice shutdown most of the major airports and delayed or canceled most train travel in Europe. For the next week the news was dominated by record cold and snow, and flight cancellations. The media referred to it as “the White-mare before Christmas.”  Heathrow in London took the worst drubbing.  In addition to thousands of unhappy, stranded holiday travelers, they had jets frozen into the runway. 
Despite the rain, snow and slush, we went out to see what we could see. On our first full day in Paris we went to Notre-Dame.  2300 years ago the city was the home of a Celtic tribe called the Parisii.  In 52 B.C the Romans conquered the Parisii and built their Temple of Jupiter where Notre-Dame stands today.  Later, the Germanic Franks conquered the Romans, knocked down the Temple of Jupiter and replaced it with the Christian church of St. Etienne in the 6 Century.  In 1163, on the same spot, they broke ground to build the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, which took almost 200 years to complete.  
St. Denis holding his head.

During the time the Romans ruled the area, the Christian Bishop, Denis, was beheaded as a warning or intended deterrent to those straying into Christianity. Legend has it, that Denis picked up his head, washed it off in a fountain, carried it ten kilometers, preaching the whole way – until he arrived at the spot where he wanted to “meet his maker.”  The Parisians declared this a miracle and Christianity boomed.  There are numerous statues of St. Denis holding his head – including one to the left of the doorway leading into Notre-Dame.  Wandering about we stopped at the famed Shakespeare and Company bookstore and the deportation memorial.  Surrounded by restaurants, brasseries and bakeries, our biggest challenge was figuring out where to eat. 
On Sunday we took the metro the Jewish Quarter in Marias.  This is a very lively neighborhood filled with shops, restaurants and artist studios.  We had lunch at L’As du Falafel, home of the best falafel sandwiches in Paris, according to our friend Lena, and the New York Times.
On Monday, Josh cut off his hair, and in some “Sampson” like connection, promptly got very sick.  He ran a fever, ached, chilled, and coughed and coughed.  He was very sick for two days, but by the third day he was basically on the mend.  On Wednesday, I went down – and, unlike Josh, was completely incapacitated our last five days in Paris.  I was too sick to read, and too sick to write.  So I was limited to watching the only TV station in English, CNN International, or watching French television.  CNN International seems to have about one hour worth of content that they just recycle over and over all day.  Having the flu when you are in Paris is crummy, but I reminded myself I was in a nice hotel room, and not sleeping on the floor at Heathrow airport.  I found it mildly amusing to watch Mary Poppins, ET and an old Western starring Kirk Douglas (Man without a Star, 1955) – all dubbed in French.  Gunslingers in a saloon speaking French seemed wrong, but ET in French worked just fine.  I still loved it when those bicycles take off into the air in the great escape, and I still cried when ET left.  That will be my memory of Christmas Eve 2010.
Josh sans long hair, checking out the fromage.
Despite having substantial practice, I am not very good a being sick. While my rationale self knows this is just an influenza virus and I will recover, my irrational drama queen self is quite convinced I have some undetected life-threatening illness and I will never feel well again.  Generally my rational self prevails.
As I said, Josh bounced right back, and he and Bob were able to spent some time at the Louvre and enjoyed at least a little more of the fine cuisine of this city.  This evening they are down on the Champs-Elysees.
The sun was out all day today, and air traffic is back to normal at the Charles de Gaulle airport.  Yesterday over half the flights were canceled because they ran out of de-icing fluid.   Tomorrow morning we fly to Tel Aviv, Israel where the forecast is for sunshine and mid-seventies.  The three of us will welcome in the new year in Jerusalem. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ruins, Romans, Riots and a Turtle Fountain

I have been in a bit of funk ever since we came to Rome, and this evening over dinner, I think I figured it out.  I am feeling useless.  It is not just that my identity is tied up in my work, even though that is part of it.  I genuinely find my work very satisfying – I see the results of my efforts.  So right now I am feeling out of balance because that part of my life is missing.  One of my favorite poets, Muriel Rukeyser, once said “Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.”   I am breathing in so many experiences, and other than this blog – not breathing out very much.  I think I need a new metaphor. 
I talk a lot about breath when I am teaching dance classes.  One of the things I try to emphasize to my students is that the exhale is every bit as important as the inhale.  When you do not exhale fully you build up CO2 in your system and this sets off a panicky feeling.  You see this often with small children learning to swim.  When they don’t exhale with their faces in the water, they get panicky and feel like they can’t inhale.  I don’t feel panicky – but I do feel like I can’t take in much more until I find a way to exhale some of these experiences.  I need to process all this as we transition out of Italy and into France, and from being a twosome to being a threesome.
We are wrapping up our four days in Rome, and our three weeks in Italy. We spent our first full day here touring the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Forum.  In the big scheme of things, it is hard to imagine that ancient Rome only spanned about 1,000 years – from about 500 B.C. – 500 A.D.  Not a long time to evolve from a tribe of barbarians to a Republic governed by elected Senators, and then on to a vast Empire ruled by a military dictator (Julius Cesar), before plunging in the Dark Ages. 
What is wonderful and bizarre is the way modern Rome has grown around all these ancient ruins.  We walked from our hotel to the Colosseum.  As we were trudging along, map master and navigator Josh said, “We should be able to see it really soon.” And sure enough, we walked around the corner and there it was.  Imagine if the Colosseum was plunked down right where Yankee Stadium is in New York.  Rome is this modern, crowded, grimy city with these enormous ancient ruins sprinkled throughout the city.  The Colosseum is as visually spectacular as its history is grisly.  It is a 2,000 year-old marvel of Roman engineering and a monument to mankind (and I am being gender specific) at his most perverse.  Our tour guide pointed out that mornings were when different hunting events were scheduled and also exotic beast on beast competitions, executions were done everyday over the lunch hour, and the gladiator battles were later in the afternoon.  So a whole day of killing, killing and more killing.   While I found it amazing to see the large sections of the Colosseum that survived the years, earthquakes and looting (most of the marble that covered the bricks was “recycled” to the Vatican) it is just hard for me to get past killing as a spectator sport.  Gruesome. 

The second day we went to see Vatican City.  Once you go through the huge walls surrounding the Vatican, you have geographically, and visually, entered another country.  It is pristine, clean, and exudes unthinkable wealth.  The Vatican Museum has been described as “four miles of the finest art of Western Civilization,” and St. Peter’s Basilica as the “most impressive church on earth.” I appreciated seeing the Sistine Chapel, and found Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica heartbreakingly beautiful, but the amount of wealth within those walls was simply incomprehensible to me. 
While we were in Vatican City, helicopters were hovering in the distance over Rome, waiting the results of the “no confidence” vote the in the Italian Parliament.  Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi narrowly survived two votes, avoiding the collapse of his government but setting off a round of violence in the center of Rome.  Nearly 100 people were wounded when protesters and police clashed.  A number of vehicles were set on fire (we could see the billowing smoke from the Vatican) and shop windows near the government center were smashed.  Later as we traveled back to our hotel, and went out to dinner, it was the subject of every television station and most people on the street.
On Wednesday, our goals were modest.  We just needed to find a Laundromat, do a significant amount of laundry, and then head off to explore the Jewish Ghetto.  I was thoroughly entertained that the Laundromat in our area was an Ondoblu – or combination self-serve laundry/ internet point.  The staff was helpful and for the first time since we left Sweden we have all clean clothes! 
The Jewish neighborhood in Rome is interesting.  Jews have been living in Rome since the 3rd Century BC.  After Emperor Titus’ occupation of Judea, and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Titus returned to Rome with riches and enslaved Jews.  Both of which were used to build the Colosseum.   In 1555, anti-Semetic Pope Paul IV issued the orders for the walls of the Ghetto to be built to separate the Jews from the rest of the society.  Outside of the walls of the Ghetto, men needed to wear a yellow patch on their hats and women needed to wear yellow kerchiefs.
When unification of Italy finally occurred in 1870, the new Italian government ended the oppression and discrimination imposed by the Church, the walls of the Ghetto were destroyed and the Jews had equal rights.  This lasted until 1938, when the Fascist government imposed “Racial Laws” that stripped Jews of their public jobs, positions, and right to attend school. 
In October of 1943, Nazi trucks pulled into the Jewish Ghetto and demanded 50 kg of gold from the community to spare the Jews from being taken to concentration camps.  The goal was reached, Jews and non-Jews providing whatever gold they could, but in the end the Nazis still deported over 2,000 Jews to Auschwitz.  Only 16 survived to return to Rome.  While one-fourth of Rome’s Jews died in the Holocaust, most historians agree it would have been much higher if not for the help and support from a wide section of Roman society. 
Our last stop in Jewish Ghetto was the Turtle Fountain (Fontana delle Tartarughe) in Piazza Mattei.  The fountain was designed by Giocomo della Porta in 1581 and constructed by Thaddeus Landini. The bronze figures are standing on four dolphins. The turtles were added in 1658, and they are generally attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini.  It is said that the turtles were meant to honor the Jews – “an ancient creature that carries all its belongings on its back.” (Rick Steves)

Our last day in Rome, we went to the Pantheon.  It was great to see such an ancient building (it was a Roman Temple built in 27 B.C.) that is still so much intact.  Mostly we used our last day to wander around the city, eat our last gelato, and buy some Italian chocolate. 
Now we are waiting to board our train to Paris.  Bob is meeting us there, and the three of us will spend ten days in France then fly to Israel.  I am going to teach a number of master classes while in Israel and will spend a little of our time Paris preparing for that.  It’s my version of exhaling. 

When I realized my funky feeling was feeling “useless” – I immediately thought of one of my favorite Marge Piercy poems.  And sharing that seems to be the appropriate way to end this entry.  Arrivederci Italia!

To be of use
by Marge Piercy
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

"To be of use" by Marge Piercy © 1973, 1982. 

From CIRCLES ON THE WATER © 1982 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and Middlemarsh, Inc. 
First published in Lunch magazine.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


I only knew two things about Perugia prior to this past weekend.  First, that it was home to Perugina Baci, Italy's most famous candy.  And second, that one of my dance alums, Julie Falk, was living there.  Both seemed like good reasons to explore this ancient city. 
First a little bit about the chocolate.  For those of you who have never encountered a Perugina Baci, it's a piece of gianduja (chocolate, nougat and ground hazelnuts) wrapped around a whole hazelnut, which is then covered in several layers of dark chocolate. "Baci”, which translates as "kisses" (and, needless to say, are way better than Hershey’s kisses), are then covered in a silver wrapper with blue stars.  Inside the wrapper are romantic expressions written in a number of languages.  Next time I am in Perugia, a factory tour is definitely on the agenda. 
Julie, a Gustavus alum of ’08, is doing an internship at the Umbra Institute, an accredited study abroad program where students learn Italian while taking courses in art, political science, history and culture.  She met us on Saturday at the Fontana Maggiore, a monumental medieval fountain located right in the center of Perugia. Located in the Piazza IV Novembre, it is not only the geographical center, it is clearly the artistic and social center of the city as well.  Julie escorted us through the steep and narrow streets where bits of the Etruscan past bump up against the medieval and the modern.  We eventually found our way down to the Christmas market, however the one in Perugia was like none other we have seen.  First of all, it was down underneath the city, in the labyrinth like substructure remains of the Rocca Paolina, a once great fortress from the 16th Century, which is gradually being excavated.  And, second, it had beautiful artisan crafts and foods. I bought a pair of knit fingerless gloves (the better to take photographs) and we sampled some of the food.  
After negotiating the crowds in the Christmas market, we met up with two of Julie’s friends, graduate students in architecture from Clemson University, for dinner at Osteria Del Tempo Perso (Osteria of Lost Time). This was a wonderful hidden treasure.  There is no sign advertising this spot, you simply need to know which door to open, in a particular little alley.  It is the opposite of fast food.  Everything is prepared from scratch, by one person, while you are there.   Many of the foods (baked potatoes with gorgonzola cheese, meats, vegetables) are cooked on coals in the fireplace in the corner.  It was a great meal at a more than reasonable price.  After a two hour dinner of lively conversation and delicious food, Julie and friends escorted us back to a familiar landmark, and Josh and I found our way back to our hotel. 
I found Perugia fascinating on so many levels.  First of all, it is visually stunning.  The panoramic views of the valleys, and Etruscan arches and aqueducts, the narrow alleys, and mile long stone stairs, all add up to “something ancient and mysteriously new.” (Alan Whykes)
I find it also interesting, because it is literally overflowing with students which gives it a different energy than the cities that are overflowing with tourists.  The Universita degli Studi di Perugia, was founded in the 13th Century and currently has a student body of close to 35,000.  And, the University for Foreigners of Perugia, conceived and founded by Mussolini in the 1920’s, adds another 8,000 college-age students to city’s population.  There is also a music conservatory and Fine Arts Academia.  Students from all over Italy, and all over the world, come to Perugia to study.  This, of course, has its negative side, such as when busloads of drunken college students stumble back from the dance clubs during the wee hours of the morning.  But it also gives Perugia a vibrancy and at least the possibility for real intercultural dialogues.

I have become fond of chain of bookstores in Italy called La Feltrinelli.  Here in Perugia at La Feltrinelli, I found this interesting book called Within These Walls: A Perugian Anthology, edited by Alan Whykes.  It is a collection of reflections, stories and poems about the experience of foreigners in Perugia.  Here is an excerpt from my favorite, an entry that was simply a long letter written to friends and family at home by a student from Minnesota named Megan Sangster.  “I love Perugia when the fog rolls in, as I does in January.  The city sits along on a hill, overlooking seven valleys, and when the fog is on them, it’s like the city is an island unto itself.  The Etruscans built Perugia long before Christ, even long before Rome.  It’s hard imagine that the city has been here since the very beginning of history, but it has.  The evidence is literally outside my door; the huge gate that the Etruscans built to protect the city and intimidate their enemies is visible from my road. Even though the gate and the ancient wall that encircles the city still stand, Perugia evokes the Middle Ages more than any other.  The tiny side streets that make the center such a labyrinth are narrow and dark; the light barely reaches the ground through the closely-set buildings, and the lanterns strung between them offer hardly any help.  In daylight they look charming and quaint, inviting you to come and explore them, but when night comes they become almost sinister.  I always half imagine that inside the building some medieval mad man lurks, writing frantic letters, hunched over his desk, planning some dramatic intrigue.”
Two days was barely enough to catch a glimpse of this complex and ancient city. I bought a small box of Perugina Baci so I could take a little of Perugia with me to Rome.  I just ate one.  The “expression” inside said, “If you know how to seek fortune, it is closer than you think.” I must know how to seek fortune, because I am quite sure it has been our traveling companion from the beginning.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


 “When it came down to it, even working was better than trudging round Florence as a tourist in a strange city. “ (Marshal Garnaccia, in The Marshal and the Madwoman by Magdalen Nabb)
I won’t go quite as far a Marshal Garnaccia (a Columbo-esque character in a popular mystery series) but after five days in Firenze (Florence) I am experiencing a bit of tourist fatigue.  It is not so much I am tired of being “a tourist in a strange city,” as I am tired of being surrounded by hoards of tourists.  Many of the tourists in Florence right now are Italians, Asians, and American students finishing up their semesters abroad. (I overheard three young Americans express with anguish, “this is our last gelato before we go home!”)
I am glad we had five days in Florence.  We tried to see one or two cultural sites each day, and then we were content to sit and eat gelato with everyone else.  We stayed at an interesting “hotel” called Residenza Della Signoria, located midway between Duomo and Piazza della Signoria.  It was just seven nicely renovated rooms on the 4th floor of renovated building right in the thick of historical Florence.  On our first day, we simply walked many miles in the drizzly rain and tried to get our bearings.  Josh, who is a passionate Assassin’s Creed (videogame set in Renaissance Italy) fan, was enjoying recognizing landmarks around town.
The tradition of Weihnachtsmarkt, or Christmas markets, that started in Germany, has spread all the way down into Italy.  Every city we have visited since Vienna, has had a Christmas market. The one in Florence is set up in front of the Santa Croce Church.  It has traditional German crafts and foods along with an assortment of venders hocking goods from other cultures.  My favorite multicultural mash-up for this city was the Guinness Memorabilia vendor, in the German Christmas Market in Piazza Santa Croce. 

On our second day, we met up with Robert Croghan, a student from Gustavus who is spending the semester in Florence studying design.  Robert’s mother is from Italy, so in addition to this past term, he has spent a significant amount of time in Italy.  Needless to say, we were most happy to have him as our tour guide for the day.  He guided us through the San Lorenzo Market (open air market – lots of leather) and the Mercato Central – the wonderland of all things edible.  After a quick stop at the train station, where we were given the unpleasant news that there was a scheduled train strike for the Friday we were set to leave Florence, we headed across the Arno River to the Santo Spirito neighborhood, and one of the best pizza places in Florence.  We then wandered back over the Ponte Vecchio Bridge and down to Piazza Santa Croce, stopping only because we needed to sample the gelato at Robert’s favorite Geloteria.  This time, in addition to a stroll through the Christmas market, we went into the Church.  This 14th Century church is decorated with centuries of precious art and also holds the tombs of Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo Buonarroti (who, in the same vein as Cher or Madonna, don’t really require last names for clarity of reference).  After exiting the main sanctuary (right between the tombs of Rossi and Machiavelli) is a lovely and quiet courtyard.

Reluctantly, we let our tour guide leave to attend his evening class, and Josh and I rested for a bit, and then went to our favorite neighborhood restaurant, Birreria Centrale.

The next morning, Josh and I hopped on a train and headed to Pisa.  It was most liberating to get on a train sans heavy suitcase.  It was, again, drizzling, but still an enjoyable ride.  We walked from the Pisa Centrale train station to the “Field of Miracles,” trying to ward off the umbrella vendors.  Once our lunch had settled we headed into the ticket office where I set out to buy 15 Euro ticket for Josh to climb up the Leaning Tower. Unfortunately, I did not read the rules first, and was admonished by the ticket seller, that “NO ONE” under 18, was allowed to climb the tower unless accompanied by an adult.  (And, if they are under 12, they must have their hand held at all times.) I don’t do well going up when things are vertical so I knew that tower was out of the picture for me.  Josh was disappointed, I did not think quickly enough to snag a friendly looking stranger to accompany him, and we headed back to the train station.  We were going to stop in Lucca on the way home, but we were tired and a thick fog was settling on the area.  We decided Lucca would need to wait for a future visit.

Our last full day in Florence, I wanted to see Uffizi Gallery and Accademia, and Josh wanted to climb Duomo’s dome.  Designed by Brunelleschi, it was the first Renaissance dome, and the model for many that followed.
In the morning, I went to Uffizi (considered the greatest collection of Italian painters anywhere featuring Giotto, Leonardo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Rubens, Michelangelo, Botticelli and one of my personal favorites - Artemisia Gentileschi) while Josh was still asleep, and once he was up and moving we set out to climb the dome.  Now I knew this was foolish for me to even attempt – but since Josh did not get to climb the tower in Pisa I wanted him to do this.  Plus, I figured it was mostly inside, and I could manage it.  Let’s just say I was wrong on many accounts.  I did make it to the top, took one peak outside, felt my head start to spin, and handed Josh my camera.  Actually, the very worst part for me was walking around the base of dome – on the inside – high, high, high above the cathedral.  I had to focus on my breathing, look at the edge of the outside wall and convince myself not to pass out.  Once my feet were firmly planted outside, I took a series of photos showing where the observation deck is on top of the dome.  (Fortunately, my camera has auto-focus, and my near vision is poor, I could not see those photos clearly until I was back in the hotel room.  Just the photos make me dizzy.)  Following our climb, Josh headed back to the hotel, and I went over to Accademia and paid my regards to Michelangelo’s real David, and a number of his unfinished sculptures.  There is a great deal of other wonderful work there including an incredible collection of Russian Icons on the second floor.  It seemed a fitting way to end my time in this historic city. 
While we were on the train to Pisa, I read that Elizabeth Edwards had died.  It hit me really hard.   In particular, I liked Edwards.  I thought she was incredibly strong and gutsy.  In general, sixty-one is too young to die, and sometimes life seems so precarious.  
Edwards had posted the following message on her facebook page. “The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered.  We know that.  And yes, there are certainly times when we aren't able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like.  It's called being human.  But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful.”
Strength and patience.  Being human. Precious days. “Travel is a privilege and life is short.”  And, once again, I am grateful.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

thoughts from josh 2

        Currently I am in Florence Italy. But we were recently in Bologna, which is otherwise known as where lamborghinis are made. On that note we visited the Lamborghini museum which I thought was very interesting. We saw cars from as early as the 50's up and as new as the 2011 Lamborghini Gallardo. I also visited the tallest tower in bologna, called the Asinelli Tower, which has almost 500 steps but climbing it was a breeze for me. It was a very amazing view of the whole city.  

Saturday, December 4, 2010

La Grassa

We have been gone from home for six weeks now, and I have to say we are beginning to fray a little around the edges.  Nothing serious, but I caught a cold and can’t find the post cards stamps I bought, and Josh seems to have left his calculator in the last city. 
In spite of the cold and my cold, Bologna has turned out to be far more memorable than I had originally expected. The reason Bologna ended up on our itinerary at all was because Josh wanted to go to the Lamborghini Factory and Museum, which is in Sant’Agata, or about 21 miles from Bologna.  We knew before we left the U.S. the factory was closed to visitors for renovations, but we decided to make the effort to still go to the museum.  It is clearly a car-geek’s heaven, but even for a totally not-into-cars person like me, it was interesting.  Gorgeous sleek cars, with original designer’s renderings, and well-displayed black and white photos of the history of the company, made it a refreshing break from the rather steady diet of dark and menacing architecture.
Josh checking out a Lamborghini in front of the Lamborghini museum.
Over the years, Bologna has picked up many nicknames:  “the learned one” (la dotta) is a reference to its famous university.  The University of Bologna is the oldest university in the world, founded in 1088, and boasts of an alumni list that includes Dante, Copernicus and Fellini.
"The fat one" (la grassa) can refer to its relative economic prosperity or to its rich culinary tradition. In terms of cuisine, my cold may have turned into a small blessing.  Thursday night I asked the guy working at the front desk for some suggestions as to where we could eat dinner close to the hotel since I didn’t feel up to a long hike late in the evening.  He gave me a list of five suggestions all within a block or two of the hotel.  That night we ate at a small restaurant called Il Grottino, just around the corner from our hotel.  Nobody there spoke English but with some pointing and sign language we managed to order a pasta with ragu (meat sauce, not the nasty stuff from a jar) and I had steak prepared in balsamic vinegar, and Josh had a margherita pizza with extra garlic.  The only mix-up was we each got a serving of the pasta, instead of the single serving I had tried to order - figuring Josh would have part of mine.  Josh ended up taking half his pizza back to the hotel, which was then safely tucked into the mini-bar frig for the next time he experienced extreme hunger. (Which happens about every two hours.) Besides the good food, this restaurant provided some great people watching.  I particularly enjoyed observing the 70-something age woman, who was having dinner with what I assumed was her 50-something age son, and having a very animated discussion.

Friday night we ate at San Luigi, which is right next-door.  We were the only people in the restaurant at 7:45 (it just opened for dinner at 7:30) and remained the only table for most of our meal.  The host, perhaps owner, spoke English quite well and was a passionate rugby fan.  (As was evidenced by the restaurant’s décor consisting of black and white rugby photographs.) I had pumpkin ravioli for the pasta course, and veal stew for the meat course.  Josh had “macaroni and cheese” (it goes without saying, which bore no resemblance to the scary stuff that comes out of box) for the pasta course, and a meat and fried potatoes for the secondi.  The meal was served with a delicious homemade focaccia with coarse salt.
Had we walked to the city center and gone to one of the highly recommended restaurants, we would have paid much more and most likely not have had the quality of food we were served.  I am also reasonably sure we would not have been treated as kindly.  (I also appreciated the fact that in both places the televisions were on and the staff were watching food network type programs when we arrived.) 
The other nickname for Bologna is "the red one" (la rossa).  This originally referred to the color of the terracotta roofs in the historic centre, but is also a reference to the fact the city was well known as the bastion of the Italian Community Party.  When searching the Internet for information about the city (Rick Steves doesn’t cover it!) I came across a great story about a Senegalese storyteller who had visited the city and was asked about his observations.  He said, "In Bologna, I saw a clean and tidy place where old men meet in the morning to talk about politics. They leave that place only to go for a coffee or a glass of wine in the bar next door, then they return".  I have no idea if the “animated” conversations we observed were about politics or something else, but still I would have to agree with the storyteller’s description. 
Saturday morning we set off to find Piazza Maggiore.  I had hoped to see a few punkabbestia (Italian slang for a punk accompanied by a dog), but instead saw more fur wearing fashionistas accompanied by dogs wearing clothes.  

Piazza Maggiore as seen from the top of the Asinelli tower.

The city of Bologna is arranged like a mandala, or pizza cut into slices, with Piazza Maggiore in the center.  Close by are two towers, both of them leaning, that are the symbol of the city.  They are located at the intersection of the roads that lead to the five gates of the old ring wall. The taller one is called the Asinelli while the smaller but more leaning tower is called the Garisenda.  Josh climbed the 498 wooden steps up to the tope of Asinelli, and shot a number of photographs and video from the top.  From his aerial perch he could see the bicycle spoke like roads extending out from the center to the periphery.  Since I get vertigo on glass sided escalators, I wisely chose to stay on the ground, and viewed his photos once we safely back in the hotel.
We also made one last stop at La Piazzola, the historic flea market that has been in Bologna since 1219.  This was entertaining on many levels.  It is only open on Fridays and Saturdays and we just happen to stumble into it on Friday, then needed to make a return visit on Saturday.  There are beautiful cashmere sweaters in one stall, then bins of one Euro sweaters in the next.  There are venders selling dollar store type merchandise and next to them, people selling winter coats and designer boots.  The shoppers are equally diverse.  I really wanted to snap a photo of some of these elegant mink coat wearing women digging through bargain bins of sweaters – but it was just too crowded to get a decent photo.
La Piazzola
Tomorrow we head for Firenze (Florence).  We will actually stay there for five nights, which pleases me.  Travel days my anxiety level goes up and I just expect things to go wrong.  So far they have not, but that doesn’t seem to assuage my anxiety. 
On a positive note, Josh and I are finding a rhythm to traveling together that works for us.  We have also crossed the halfway mark for the first stage of this journey.  In two weeks, Bob meets us in Paris.  From France we travel to Israel, and from Israel we will return home to re-group before heading to China.  Home to spill out a suitcase full of memories, and prepare for the next stage. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


A few years ago my friend Melissa gave me the book Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams.  I am a huge TTW fan, but even I thought it was a stretch to write a cohesive commentary that covered a mosaic workshop in Ravenna, observations of beleaguered prairie dogs, her brother’s death and a trip to Rwanda to help create a genocide memorial.  But she does it – weaving all these pieces together using the metaphor of the mosaic – the idea of taking small broken pieces and shaping them into a something beautiful.
I was fascinated with the art of mosaic long before I read Williams’ book, but her description of learning to cut the tesserae (little cubic stones used in mosaic) solidified my appreciation of craft, and engraved Ravenna on my itinerary for future travel.
And here we are.  Amid steady rain, and with umbrella in hand, we set out to begin to see this city known for mosaics.  Our first stop this morning was the Domus dei Tappeti di Pieti, or the House of Stone Carpets.  This 6th Century Byzantine house was just discovered in 1993.  Excavations revealed many layers, dating back to the second century. However, after all the layers were peeled away and carefully preserved elsewhere, they put back and exhibited the sixth-century floors – all 12 rooms. (I have to say it was killing me not to be able to take photographs in this space.)  Because this was a private home, the mosaic was primarily decorative not religious. Some of the floors were just geometric, abstract designs.  Others were more narrative.  Of course, I particularly appreciated the design on the floor of the very center room called the “Dance of the Geniuses of the Seasons,” described as “a very rare depiction showing the geniuses dancing in a circle.”  Here is a link that shows some of these mosaic floors, though I will say none of the photos I found on the Internet do them justice.

Mausoleum di Galla Placidia

Basilica di San Vitale

In 402, “barbarian tribes” were threatening Rome, so the Roman Emperor moved his capital to Ravenna. It was during this time that the city became the center of late Roman mosaic art.  The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (daughter, sister, mother of Emperors) was built and decorated with perhaps the most beautiful mosaics in this city in 425 – 430.  It is generally thought that Galla Placidia died and was buried in Rome around A.D. 450, and this mausoleum does not actually contain any remains.  From the outside it is a very humble little building – but the mosaic work inside is simply opulent.  95% of the mosaic in the mausoleum is thought to be original.  Photos are not allowed inside, so once again, I am providing you with a link:
The Goths of Hungary conquered Ravenna in 476 and 1,000 years of the Roman Empire came to an end.  In 540, Byzantine Emperor Justinian conquered the Goths. Justinian is credited for turning Ravenna into the “pinnacle of civilization.”  It was during this second half of the 6th Century that the Basilica of San Vitale was created.  The sumptuous mosaics in this Basilica are clearly religious with a sprinkling of politics.  The centerpiece, high and directly in front of the altar shows Christ sitting in a celestial orb.  To the left (JC’s right) is an angel, then Justinian – wearing both a halo and a crown.  Clearly the mosaic is meant to show that Emperor Justinian was Jesus’ right hand man here on earth.  This web site has the best photos of the mosaics from inside this Basilica.
Part of what is so amazing to me is that these buildings and their interior mosaics have survived the centuries of wars.  The area around the train station was completely destroyed WWII bombs, but these ancient masterpieces survived. 
I recently read a short, heart-wrenching memoir called “Paradise-Lost” by Momena Sayed.  She writes about her childhood home, Khandahar, Afghanistan.  She says her mother described Afghanistan, before all the wars, as “paradise.” And Kabul as “a great jewel of city, the exotic destination for people from all over the world.” And the museums there as “filled with the most beautiful and rarest arts.”  I can’t help but wonder, what is left of those “most beautiful and rarest of arts” in Khandahar?
As a dancer I accept that my artwork is ephemeral.  The more I study history, and read the newspaper, I am astonished (and grateful) that there is so much art that survives. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

Still Wonderful

While the weather has oscillated back and forth between glorious and dismal, the flooding has been a nuisance, the hotel’s internet worked less than 12 hours during our four-day stay, and the cost of meals has consistently been budget breaking, Venice is still wonderful.  I think it is impossible not to love this city. 

On Friday, once the tide started to recede, Josh and I went out to explore the city.  First we went to the distinctive stone Rialto Bridge.  Built in 1588, not only was it an amazing engineering feat, until 1850 it was the only bridge that crossed the Grand Canal.  Even during this rainy, off-season, day - the area is packed with tourists.  During high tide, they put miles and miles of 12” high, 3-4 feet wide, platforms down the center of the narrow streets.  The locals, with knee high rubber boots, splash along at ground level, and the tourists, mostly without boots, creep along on top of these platforms and hop off here and there to check out the shopping.  The markets around Rialto are really a mishmash of cheesy souvenir shops and cool little boutiques.  There are many, many mask shops and Josh and I spent some time speaking with a traditional mask maker who had been to Minnesota.  He had visited our fair state to make masks for Circus Juventas in St. Paul.  We also spent some time in a great little bead store, Perle e Dintorni, which was raved about on tripadvisor reviews.  In route back to our hotel, Josh sampled the gelato from the shop in our neighborhood. 

After a brief rest at the hotel, we went to dinner at Terrazza del Casin dei Nobili, a classic little canal side restaurant just down the street from our hotel.  It is clearly off-season, and only one other party came in while we were having dinner.  Josh had a steak and I had fish soup – both a welcome break from all the pizza we had been eating. 

Saturday morning we awoke to bright sunshine.  A water taxi picked us up right outside our pensione and whisked us across the lagoon to the island of Murano.  Bouncing across the choppy water, under the clear blue sky, with the lavish palaces and other remnants of what was once the world’s richest city lining the horizon, was one of those “pinch me so I know I am not dreaming” moments.

Murano is known for its glass factories.  Almost all of them offer free 20-minute tours.  The one we toured, the Mazzega Glass Factory, specialized in making chandeliers and had been in the same family for over 400 years.  After the tour we leisurely walked through the nine retail showrooms, and two small gift shops.  I bought Josh a pair of Murano glass cuff-links, we explored a number of other glass shops, then caught vaporetti #42 back to the main island. 

The view from the bridge in Murano.
After taking care of some business at the train station (booking our overnight train from Rome to Paris for the middle of December) we decided to enjoy the sunshine for as long as we could and set out for St. Mark’s Square.  This is often listed as the number one sight to see in Venice.  I was interested in seeing St. Mark’s Basilica just because of its size and Eastern (Byzantine) style architecture.  Only a few thousand other people had the same idea for this sunny afternoon, and, without thinking, we arrived amid the throngs right during high tide.  Before we realized it – we were standing ankle deep in water, shoes and socks getting soaked and with few easy ways to escape the crowds.  Once you are wet, you are wet – so I decided to take a photo of Josh in front of the Basilica and then try to find our way to higher, dryer land.  We had wanted to find Café Florian, supposedly the most famous Venetian café and the first place in all of Europe to serve coffee – but I just couldn’t attempt to read the itty-bitty print on my map while standing ankle-deep in cold water and, in the end, we just made our way back to the penisone in search of dry shoes and socks.

After brief chat with the front desk, it was clear that there would be no working Internet at the hotel until sometime after we checked out on Monday.  We also knew all the listed Internet cafés are closed on Sunday, so we set out to find the closest Internet café that was still open.  After completely overshooting the square with the Internet spot, we stumbled on to a very fun flea market with all sorts of treasures we could never fit in our suitcases but nonetheless were fun to look at.  Since it was getting dark, we asked a “looks likely to speak some English” suspect for directions, backtracked the way we arrived and found our teeny-tiny combination Internet spot Toy Store.  (There was no “café” element at all, that is why it was called an Internet “hotspot.”) The entire space was about ten feet wide and 12 feet deep and packed with Legos and Playmobile.  Along one wall were four computers.  For two Euros you got 30 minutes of Internet time.  I paid my two Euros, sent off my last blog, uploaded my most recent photos to facebook and was out of time.  By then it was completely dark, but thankfully Josh has a really good sense of direction and navigated us back to our familiar neighborhood.

Sunday morning the weather pendulum had swung back to dismal with “Heavy rainfall” predicted for much of the day.  In spite of the bleak forecast, we set out early with only two items on our agenda - the Jewish ghetto in Venice, and the DaVinci “Machine” exhibit. 

The Jewish Ghetto was really interesting, aided in part by our very articulate tour guide.  There were Jews in the Venetian Republic as far back as the first century of the “common era.”  As the number and importance of the Jews in the area increased, up to almost 5,000 by 16th Century, the Republic decided they needed to “organize” their presence and designated an area of the city where the Jews were required to live.  It was in the area where the ancient foundries had been located.  The Venetian word for “foundry” is “geto”, pronounced with a soft “g” like “gelato.”  Many of the Ashkenazi immigrants had come from Germany and could not easily pronounce the soft “g.” They pronounced it with a hard “g” – leading to the pronunciation we now associate with the word “ghetto.” 

Because space was so precious they build six-story tenement style apartments and built their synagogues on top of these buildings.  There were five synagogues in this area and we were able to tour three of them.  From the outside of the building the average person would not know it is the location of a synagogue.  The Jews of the region could easily spot a synagogue because they knew to look for a top floor with five windows in a row.  The five windows were code for the five books of the Torah. 
The five windows indicate it is a synagogue in the Jewish Ghetto in Venice.

There were large gates on the only two bridges in and out of the Jewish Ghetto and they were locked at midnight every night.  The only Jews allowed to leave the Ghetto during the night time hours were the physicians, being called to treat wealthy Venetians.  Our guide told us the current Jewish population is only about 250 and only two of the synagogues are still active.  In spite of the small population, there is a vitality these days in this area.  There are numerous kosher restaurants, many small art galleries and a steady stream of tourists in and out of the museum.  I loved the art work I saw everywhere.

One random fun fact we discovered while on this journey and digging into family history was that Bob’s great grandmother (and Josh’s great, great grandmother) was Italian.  She married a man from the Austrian province of Galicia, so their immigration papers listed them as “Austrian.”  We also discovered that Bob’s great uncle (Josh’s great, great uncle) Max Zweifach, was a hard core gangster on the Lower East Side of New York.  You can read all about him at, the Internet Index of Tough Jews.

After a quick lunch, we splish-splashed our way to the Church of San Barnaba to see the “Exhibit of Interactive Machines reproduced from Leonardo da Vinci’s codices.” Josh is a big da Vinci fan, so this exhibit was right up his alley.  Each display had copy of da Vinci’s original drawings, and a model of the realized machine.  There were 60 models of machines ranging from bicycles to multi-cannon war ships.  I promised Josh I would buy him a book about da Vinci’s machines once we were back in States. 
The bicycle at the da Vinci Machine Museum.

Tomorrow we will be leaving Venice and heading to Ravenna for a few days.  I am incredibly glad we spent this time in Venice and would strongly encourage anyone who has visiting this city on their “bucket list” not to wait too long.  Sadly, Venice is a city that is “dying.” The population of Venice is half what it was 30 years ago, and is losing about 1,000 residents a year.  It is simply too expensive for people to live here.  Travel guru, Rick Steves, writes,  “Even the most hopeful city planners worry that in a few decades, Venice will not be a city at all, but a museum, a cultural theme park, a decaying Disneyland.”

However, for my last day in Venice, I would prefer to hold on to the image painted by Joseph Brodsky, and quoted by Rachel Donadio, in the travel section of the New York Times today.  “In winter you wake up in this city, especially on Sundays, to the chiming of its innumerable bells, as though behind your gauze curtains a gigantic china tea set were vibrating on a silver tray in the pearl-gray sky,” Brodsky wrote. “You fling the window open and the room is instantly flooded with this outer, peal-laden haze, which is part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers.”

And for these two travelers, Venice/ Venezia, has been a damp but wonderful place to spend four days in November.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Acqua Alta

We are basically trapped in our pensione until about 2:30 today due to acqua alta - in other words, flooding.  Simply put Venice is sinking, the water is rising, and most days from late October until end of winter, as the tide rolls in, the areas around the canal flood.  Yesterday was bright and sunny, and while we considered buying rain boots, we just tiptoed through the flooded areas and by about 3:30 the tide had gone out and the flooding abated. 
However, today is a steady rain and the water outside the hotel is already ankle deep.  It is an hour and half until high tide, and I expect the water will be even higher by then.  In retrospect, we should have bought the boots. 
The internet is also down, so I figure it a good time to catch everyone up on our adventures of the past few days even though I have know idea when I will be able to post this. 
On Wednesday evening we negotiated the U-bahn, with suitcases and backpacks and made our way to the Wien Westbahnhof.  (Vienna’s West Train Station).  It was a small station, and, as usual, we had arrived ridiculously early since I always expect to get lost in route to any unfamiliar location.  We bought dinner (pizza for Josh, and a sandwich for me) and found a bench where we could sit and read until we could board our train.  We had booked a sleeping car since we would be traveling all night to get to Venice.  We were very pleasantly surprised by the sleeping car.  We booked a double, but we were placed in a triple.  There were three Murphy style bunk beds, and table with two bags for each of us.  One contained a cup of water, soap and a towel, the other a bottle of water, a bottle of white wine, an apple and a kit-kat bar.  Josh decided he wanted the very tiptop bunk – and settled into his crow’s nest for the journey.  I was happy to have the lowest bunk.  While there is something very comforting and conducive to sleeping much of the time on a train, there were a number jarring stops and starts that prevented me from getting a very sound night of sleep. 
We arrived in Venice about 9:00 AM, bought our vaporetti (water bus) three-day passes, and waiting for the #2 vaporetti to the area of our hotel.  We were herded on to a very crowed vaporetti, which fortunately got much less crowded after the first few stops.  We were riding along comfortably, taking in the views of the canal until Josh got an absolutely alarmed look on his face and said “Sh%#!!!” To which I said “What?” And he answered “I left my passport on the train!” A kind, middle-aged Italian man over heard us and said, “Don’t worry, that happens all the time.  Just go to the police and explain what happened.  You lose your money – that is bad.  You lose your passport?  They replace it.”  I tried to maintain a calm “this will make a great story one day” sort of attitude, but nonetheless felt the blood vessels in my head start to constrict.  We decided to get to the hotel, drop off our luggage and head back to the train station.  Fortunately our room was available, so we left our bags and caught a vaporetti back to the train station.  Once we found the “client assistance” office we explained the situation to the receptionist.  She took a small notebook out of her pocket, looked up a handwritten phone number and made a call.  After explaining the purpose of her call in rapid-fire Italian, she paused – then her face brightened and she winked at us.  I told Josh I thought that was a positive sign.  She then hung up and said his passport was at the Police station next to train #1.  We found the police station, got the passport and then felt a bit giddy with relief.  We decided to explore the neighborhood around the train station, had a little lunch, then, once again, boarded vaporetti #2 in the direction of the hotel.  By now, the city was really waking up, the gondolas were out on the canal and we were able to enjoy the sights along the canal.  I also realized I was completely exhausted, and once we returned to the hotel, welcomed an afternoon nap. 

Late in the afternoon, we set off across the Accademia Bridge and wandered the narrow streets almost all the way to the Rialto bridge area.  We stopped for dinner, and since we were in Italy, stopped for gelato in route back to the hotel.  By early evening the temperature had dropped to the point you could see your breath – and we almost froze walking back to the hotel eating our gelato. 

As per our pattern, I spent the evening reading guidebooks and trying to come up with a plan to make the most of our days in Venice.  This morning we awoke to steady rain and acqua alta.  We decided to have a quiet day at the hotel until after high tide.  The skies are getting a bit brighter, and the rain is letting up but the water is still topping the ankles of those passing by.  High tide is still forty-five minutes from now, so for now, I think we stay warm and dry in our cozy pensione a little longer.   

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I am an academic – there is no getting around that one.  I tend to research things pretty seriously before diving straight in.  Overall, this has served us quite well – but we certainly have encountered a number of things that run counter to conventional wisdom and travel guidebooks.  We spent three weeks in Sweden, and were pleasantly surprised by the reasonable and manageable prices there.  We spent two weeks in Eastern Europe and were repeatedly shocked by the outrageously expensive costs there.  In Sweden, having ready access to laundry facilities at the folk school, our friends’ home and the hostel, spoiled us.  During our week in Prague we just washed things in the bathroom sink because we couldn’t find anywhere close to our hotel to do laundry, and couldn’t find anyone to ask.  In Slovakia, the person at the front desk did some Internet research for us, and while she could not find anything like a laundromat, she did find a place in the neighborhood where you could drop laundry off to be washed.  Unfortunately, they charged per item.  Our small load of laundry ended up costing us 40 Euros, or about $54.  Needless to say, here in Vienna, we are back to running our bathroom sink laundry service.
I didn’t have a lot of preconceived ideas about Vienna.  To be honest, going to Vienna was never really high on my “to-see” list.  We ended up here more out of convenience than burning desire.  However, after spending two weeks in Eastern Europe and reading so much about the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Hapsburg Empire), I was intrigued to see the city that once ruled such a giant kingdom.  The evidence of its elegant past is everywhere.  And while I thoroughly enjoyed wandering through the lavish Imperial Apartments and looking at the gorgeous clothing and jewels in the Imperial Treasury, I have become a little numb to all the gothic grandeur.  (Though I have to admit part of me still expects to see the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz, whenever I look up at Gothic spires.)
While there were times in both the Prague and in Košice, where Josh and I had to walk an incredibly long distance to find a restaurant or a grocery store that was open, we knew right away we would rarely be hungry in Vienna.  While restaurants here are plentiful, and there seem to be grocery stores on every block, I have to say Josh and I are becoming connoisseurs of street food.  Würstelstands are abundant and they offer far more than hotdogs.  Josh has become a fan of the mustard horseradish mixture the serve with some of the “dogs.”
Josh also discovered “gelato” here in Vienna.  Yesterday he ordered a large gelato with four different scoops of four different flavors.  Today, in spite of a darn cold wind, he ordered a large gelato with two scoops of what he thought was “cookies and cream” and two scoops of “nutella.”  He enjoyed the nutella scoops, but he was less thrilled when he got to the two scoops of “mohn” and discovered that what he thought were cookie bits were, in fact, poppy seeds.  While I would most likely not select “poppy seed” as a gelato flavor – I was happy to finish off what Josh rejected.  He will have many more opportunities to refine his gelato preferences in the weeks ahead.  Tomorrow evening we will catch the night train to Venice, Italy.  I believe pasta will replace turkey on our Thanksgiving menu this year, but thankfulness will in abundance.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Leaving Košice

I am sitting in the Košice International Airport waiting to check in for our return flight to Prague.  The name implies something far grander than it is.  There are two gates – one for arrivals and one for departures.  We arrived about two hours early in case there were complications.  Other than a few employees we are the only ones in the airport.  The Slovakia version of “Who’s got Talent” called “Talent Mania” is playing on the television by the café.  I am thinking of all the random and quirky moments of our trip so far that I do not want to forget. 
For example, the Segway tours in Prague.  Two enterprising university graduates were trying to come up with business concept.  Tourism is big in Prague.  You see bus tours as well as walking tours all through the city.  These two entrepreneurs decided to add wheels to the walking tours and started a business called Prague on Segway.   During the first few days we were in Prague we would see these groups of middle-aged tourists all with matching white helmets riding their Segways through the streets and plazas of Prague, following their Segway riding tour guide like ducklings following a mother duck.  Unfortunately every time I wrangled my camera to catch a photo – they were gone. 
I have also been surprised/curious at the pink/orange hair color that seems ever present on so many women in Slovakia.  I am not speaking of teen-age trendy punk girls, but women from middle-age to quite elderly who lighten their dark hair to almost neon hues of pink and orange.  Baffling.
Yesterday we discovered a great little Internet café/bar in Košice called the Technik Cafe.  It had only been open a week, was designed all in black and white, and sported the tag line “technically impossible.” While our hotel claimed to have Wi-Fi through out, it really only worked in the lobby and even there was too slow to anything beyond send an e-mail or post a facebook status update.  So Josh and I packed up our laptops and headed to the Technik Café so I could upload photographs and he could attend his on-line advisory.  (Josh is going to school on-line and has “virtual homeroom” each day at the equivalent to 9:00AM in St. Peter.) So late yesterday afternoon (4:00Pm in Košice, 9:00 AM in St. Peter) Josh and I parked ourselves there (he with a coke and me with a glass of wine) to do a little work.  After about an hour the waitress came by and asked if I would like another glass of wine.  I pondered for a minute, but knowing that one glass is my limit answered "Ah . . . no."  A few minutes later she brought me a second glass of wine.  It took a minute to register before remembering that  "Ano" is Yes, and "Ne" is no in both Czech and Slovak.  So it was a two glasses of wine day for me.  
Frances Mayes is perhaps my most favorite travel writer.  In the introduction to her book, A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller, she writes, “The urge to travel feels magnetic.  Two of my favorite words are linked: departure time.  And travel wets the emotions, turns upside down the memory bank, and the golden coins scatter.”
The golden coins of my memory bank continue to take me by surprise.  As mentioned above, the only place we could get Internet in our Košice hotel was in the lobby.  Fortunately there were rest rooms right off the lobby, so each time I needed a bathroom I did not need to trudge up two flights up steps to our room.  Here is the odd golden coin part of that.  There was some kind of perfumey air freshener in the women’s bathroom off the lobby that smells just like my Aunt Ollie!  It just knocked me over when ever I went in there and flooded me with memories of this colorful relative. (She was my father’s older sister who ran away as a teen-ager and joined the vaudeville circuit.)  This morning while waiting for the taxi to take us to airport, being an experienced traveler, I made one last trip to the bathroom.  My Aunt Ollie died in 1986, but there she was again captured in that fragrance, and I welled up with tears.  As Mayes pointed out – travel wets the emotions.  
(Imagine the strange fake French accented voice on the SpongeBob cartoon saying “Five hours later” . . .)
The flight to Prague was uneventful, luggage arrived and after about a fifteen-minute wait our taxi driver appeared to whisk us over to the main train terminal to catch our train to Vienna.  There was only an hour and fifty minutes between scheduled plane arrival and train departure, but we decided to count on everything working like clockwork, as we wanted to arrive in Vienna this evening and have a leisurely day on Sunday since it is Josh’s 14th birthday.  Josh was famished when we reached the train station and we managed to scrape our last Czech coins together to have enough to buy him burger at Burger King.  (His first, and I hope only, American junk food in Europe.) He wolfed his burger down and we took up residence in front of the large display board that showed the number of the departure platform for each train.  Finally, less than 20 minutes before departure a number “two” appeared next to the name Wien Praterstern.  The fit looking seniors next to us took off in the direction of the platforms and we followed.  After a rather frantic sprint down to the far, far end of the train, we found our car and hopped on.
That is where Josh made the heartbreaking discovery that unlike the trains in Sweden, this old train did NOT have outlets!  Four hours without a screen to entertain him! 
Unlike Josh, I love riding the trains in Europe.  I can just relax, read, or snooze a little.  I had hoped he would enjoy the experience also.   So far train travel seems to be something he at best tolerates.  Four days in Vienna (or Wien, as they say here) and we are off to Italy.  Which is probably why Frances Mayes keeps popping into my head.  So I will sign off with a few more of her words.
“The need to travel is a mysterious force.  A desire to go runs through me equally with an intense desire to stay at home.  An equal and opposite thermodynamic principle.  When I travel, I think of home and what it means.  At home I’m dreaming of catching trains at night in the gray light of Old Europe, or pushing-open shutters to see Florence awaken.  The balance just slightly tips in the direction of the airport.”
Or for me – the train station.
(12 hours later . . . )
Good Morning from Wien (Vienna) and Happy 14th Birthday to my traveling companion, Josh!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


I spent this morning in my grandmother’s village with my third cousin, Anna Mikulakova.  I had never met Anna before today, and I arrived on her doorstep unannounced.  My cousin, Jeff (okay, first cousin once removed – but let’s not get picky) had met Anna over fifteen years ago, during his military career when stationed in Europe.  Jeff had given me a name, address and old telephone number – but the telephone number no longer worked.  So this morning I arrived in Chmelova with my son and a translator and just went looking for her house. 
I need to back up a bit here.  Like so many Americans I am ethnically a mix of two very different cultures.  My mother is 100% Norwegian.  The Scandinavian side of my family has been in the United States for quite some time.  My great grandfather, Ole Peter Ruh, fought in the Civil war.  And my uncle, Lyle, and his wife still live on the farm that has been in our family since the time of the Civil War.  I can go to the cemetery down the road from the farm and find my grandparents, great grandparents, and perhaps even another generation of relatives graves all located there.  My roots feel very, very deep on that side of the family.
The other side of my family – my “Rusinko” side is Carpatho-Rusyn, and it was only my paternal grandparents who immigrated to the U.S. in 1894.  When I was little I thought my dad and his family were Russian because they went to St. Mary’s Russian Orthodox Church.  It took a long time to sort out that they were “Rusyn” not “Russian.”
Rusyns (sometimes called Carpatho-Rusyns because their villages are located in the Carpathian Mountains) are one of the many ethnic groups of Slovakia, along with Slovaks, Hungarians, Germans, and Romanies (Gypsies).  Rusyns are eastern Slavs, which means that their history, culture, and language are rooted in the medieval Kievan Rus' kingdom, whereas Slovaks are western Slavs.  Slovaks and Rusyns have lived together for nearly 1000 years but each maintain their own language and culture.
Part of what makes this all so confusing is the fact that Rusyns have never had their own country.  Given current political borders there are Rusyn villages Slovakia, Ukraine and Poland.  When my grandparents left their respective communities their villages were all under the umbrella of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Which brings us back to this morning.  Anna, her daughter Martina, and a few grandchildren were working in the yard.  After getting over the surprise of having yet another American relative stumble in unannounced (above mentioned cousin Jeff had done something similar the first time) she welcomed us with open arms and invited us into her home.  Over coffee she brought out the family tree information she been collecting ever since she first meeting my cousin.  Here is part of what I discovered.  Alexander Birosh and Paraskieva Boris (our great, great grandparents) had two sons, one named Michal and one named Jan.  Michal was my great grandfather, and Jan was Anna’s great grandfather.  Michal and his wife, Anna Tarasar had seven children, one was my grandmother, Tereza.  Jan and his wife, Maria Hudan, had five children, one of whom was Andrej, Anna’s grandfather.  I could go on, but I think I have made my case for why we are third cousins.  
My third cousin, Anna, her husband, daughter, Josh and me.

The church where my grandmother was baptized.  This is the view from the back, but I like how you can see the mountains

Chmelova is an incredibly beautiful town.  I just liked this photo of Josh, by a small stream that runs through the town.

My cousin Anna's home.

Before this morning, I did not even know my grandmother’s parents’ names.  There was so much about my father’s family I did not really understand.  I knew only bits and pieces – that my grandparents’ marriage had been “arranged,” that my grandfather worked in the coal mines in Pennsylvania and that was very hard on my grandmother, that my great-great uncles were bootleggers during prohibition and helped my grandparents move from Pennsylvania to Minneapolis, that they were very poor and they had twelve children and two died very young.   My grandfather died long before I was born, and my grandmother died when I was only five years old.  Ten of their children lived long into adulthood but now they are all gone too. Like so many others, by the time I was old enough to become really curious about my ancestry there was no longer anyone to answer the questions.  
I cannot describe the pull I felt to come to this area.  I know my dad dreamed of visiting the villages his parents left or as he always referred to it “the old country.”   During the short window when he perhaps could have afforded to travel here, the area was locked down under communist rule.  By the time of the Velvet Revolution (Twenty-one years ago today) he was too old, and not confident or in strong enough health to make such a journey.
I don’t remember the exact line, but there is a part at the end of the book The Joy-Luck Club by Amy Tan, where the American born daughter travels to China to meet her half sisters and says something about bringing them the hopes and dreams of her mother.  During this whole time in Eastern Europe I have felt I was carrying the hopes and dreams of my father.  I am perhaps filled with more questions than answers, but it is clear to me the world has just gotten a little smaller as my family has grown a little bigger.