July 16, 2014

A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren’s AFighting Chance is must reading for all American citizens but especially for mothers, for dog lovers, and for anyone who thinks they have gotten a raw deal from those who control this country’s economy. The book is like a rolling ocean wave. It crests and lets you float along, suspended between earth and sky; it drops you unexpectedly, and leaves your eyes wet with tears; then ultimately it washes over you and pulls you under.

The crests of the book are those vignettes that tell Senator Warren’s story. The style is conversational and makes the reader feel like she is sitting at the Senator’s dining room table sharing a beer. Her infectious optimism seeps into the pores and carries her reader along.

The low points as a reader are the stories of the people she has met, the people who are struggling, the people for whom she has so much passion. There are many tears to be shed while reading this book, both for the struggles of those who are hurt by the current direction of the country and for those moments of nobility of human spirit that raise you once again to the crests.

Ultimately, however, this book sucked me in. The arguments are clear and well-reasoned, and Senator Warren’s passion washes over every page. It is hard not to want to march right behind her wherever she goes. 


The only negative with A Fighting Chance is the fact that it was extremely difficult to put down. I had thought that the short, readable sections would make it easy to read piecemeal but the energy and story-telling power of the book made that impossible. Senator Warren, I would have a beer with you any time.

April 27, 2014

Southern European Meditations, Part Six: The Fine Arts

A Singing Culture


One Sunday, we went to a neighborhood church in Spain, to find there were no instruments to accompany the hymns. This was a bit disappointing because the church had a beautiful organ (at least to the eye) that sat untouched. The voices of the congregation, however, made up for the lack of accompaniment. The song leader performed a cappella and the entire congregation sang along—everyone in tune. The biggest surprise was that none of the men or older women dropped down an octave as we hear so often in this country.



Center of the Church

In Spanish cathedrals, music sits in the center of the nave. Two massive organs, each with full ranks

Choir in Cathedral at Seville
of pipes, border a large room, usually with partial walls topped with grates and wrought metal doors. Ornate choir stalls line the room and an antique music stand usually stands in place of prominence. This space almost overpowers the altars in majesty, placing music at the center of worship.



Magic Moments

A Monument to Music
Friends ask me to name my favorite place or moment from the three months we traveled in Southern Europe. There were too many magical moments to choose, but if I were forced to do that, the place I might select is La Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona. Experiencing the Palau is perhaps the highlight that calls back to me most often. A building as beautiful as the music it produces dedicated to regional, international, classical and modern music, built to house a choral society rather than an orchestra, combines music, architecture and art in a way that leaves one breathless. (You can read more about this site in my Barcelona blog from November 13, 2013.)


The most magical moment would probably be while we were at lunch one day in Granada. A number of young women lugged large drums past us. I was curious but lunch was delicious, so I did not investigate. A bit later, there was a thunderous rhythmic sound and my curiosity overwhelmed my gustatory pleasure. I raced over to the nearby square where a squad of female drummers were playing extraordinary syncopated rhythms and moving with an energy that belongs only to the young—a spontaneous concert of women strutting as I wish I had had the courage to do when I was their age.


Special Delight: Workshop for Baroque Instruments in Venice (Photo taken through glass)


Living on in Literature

In Lyon a statue of Antoine de St. Exupery carries the inscription, “To forget a friend is sad.” It amazed me that, with all that this author wrote, he is best remembered for The Little Prince, a children’s book.

Saint-Exupery and the Little Prince at Dusk

I wondered what it would be like to be remembered as an author in faraway places long after you are gone. In Sorrento one bookstore has a copy of I Ragazzi di Jo (Jo’s Boys) by Louisa May Alcott.

Another Special Delight: Visiting cities where the old streets of booksellers have been preserved. 

Question: The Seine is lined with bookstalls and art. Does this reflect the values of Parisians or does it reflect what the Parisians believe tourists desire?


Sitting for a Portrait

European museums are filled with portraits and it made me think about the evolution of having one’s image captured. Having a portrait once meant sitting for hours, perhaps days, with an artist copying your features in paints. Later the portrait only required a person to be perfectly still for a short period of time while an image was imprinted on a glass or metal plate by a professional. Kodak film made it possible for the ordinary citizen to take pictures so one only had to ask a friend to take your picture, using the friend’s camera of perhaps your own. (A traveler often asked a complete stranger to take the camera from her neck and take a picture of her, a very trusting act if she has an expensive the camera.) Then the film had to be developed and printed so that you could determine if the print was something you might keep. Sometimes you wished to share the photo and would have additional prints made. Then came digital. The picture could be seen immediately and the photographer could quickly determine whether the portrait needed to be taken again because one’s mouth was open or eyes closed. And then came the phone. Now a photographer lifts the phone out arm’s length and takes her own picture. Is this an improvement or not?

Hope for the World

In Rethymno, Greece, on the island of Crete, the old Venetian armory has been converted into an art gallery.

April 23, 2014

Southern European Meditations, Part Five: Parlez-Vous?



MY FAVORITE SPANISH WORDS

Gaudi curved windows at Casa Battlò
(where we paid Jubilados rate)
No Molestar – for “Do not Disturb”

Jubilados – (as in the Latin, jubilate, for “Rejoice”) used for Retired People
(and thank you to Spain for providing discounts at tourist attractions for American retired people when France, Italy and Greece require you to be a Euro member)






A “Nero”Street 


ITALIAN TRANSLATIONS

The guide in Campania kept talking about the “nero” streets. It took me a couple of mental tries before I realized he meant the streets were not very wide. Then he started talking about his “ankle,” and I could make no sense of what he was saying, because neither his ankle nor mine fit the topic. Sensing my confusion, he offered more, “the brother of my mother.”
            
            I wonder what my Italian words sound like to Italians?


CUTEST SURPRISE

The ubiquitous Italian “va bene” for “everything’s fine” becomes “va bo’” in Neapolitan.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

I spent two weeks picking up Spanish phrases and trying to remember the one year of Spanish I took a decade ago. I managed to buy a new blouse and get a pedicure with my limited vocabulary and I was feeling pretty good—until I got to Barcelona. I had no idea they didn’t speak Spanish there. Even the signage is in Catalan and treats Spanish as a second language.
Saint George, Patron Saint of Catalans

March 27, 2014

Southern European Meditations, Part Four: A Catholic Tourist in Spain


Parish Church in Granada (where we attended Mass
The ritual of the Mass in the Catholic Church has a uniformity throughout the world.  The prayers follow in a particular order, and if you are visiting a cathedral you can pop your head into a side chapel and know within a minute exactly where the priest is in the order of the Mass, even if you don’t speak the language. There are, however, a number of variations. Sometimes there are extra prayers, before, during and after Mass; and traditions vary on when to sit, stand, or kneel. Fortunately, nuns in Europe still wear habits and the two or three at every Mass are easily identifiable. So, my mantra was, “Follow the nun.” When she sat or knelt, I followed—a failsafe method should you ever require it.




One of my earliest memories of the churches in Spain (from 1972) is the overwhelming amount
Gilt Under Guard
of gold inside them. On our recent visit the wealth inside the Church was juxtaposed against the beggars sitting outside the church (a sight less visible in the day’s of Franco’s rule). I wonder what Pope Francis has to say about the abundance that is denied the poor. I was also struck by the fact that the bishops sit and kneel on plush cushions, while the congregation sits on hard wooden pews and kneels on unpadded boards.




Columbus with Ferdinand and Isabella
My conscience was pricked on this visit by the numerous statues of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, whose presence is sprinkled throughout Spain’s cities and churches, more than five centuries after their rule. Pope Alexander VI conferred on them the title “Catholic King and Queen” in their lifetime, the assumption being that they were doing God’s work. Today they are still called “the Catholic Monarchs.” When one studies the atrocities they committed, especially the Inquisition, one wonders if that label is one of praise. Because they expelled those of other faiths from the country and segregated those who were not like themselves, I could not help but wonder how much of today’s intolerance between religions can be traced back to them.

Courtyard of a historic Jewish home in Cordoba
The Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. There is some irony in the date, the
same year that Columbus discovered a land that would be built (after initial atrocities to the native populations) on the principle of freedom and inclusion of all. Since our return an Associated Press story reported that the Spanish government is in the process of passing a law that grants Spanish citizenship to descendants of the Jews who were expelled. It cannot repair the damage but does acknowledge a wrongdoing.






PERSONAL REALIZATION

Sometimes it’s easier to be Catholic in a foreign country. I can figure out the Scriptures and the Mass prayers from past experience, but the preaching is often beyond my understanding of the language. This means I hear no breaches of history or didactic pronouncements that prickle my sense of the real meaning of Christ’s message. (Gary understands more than I, but I don’t ask him to translate. It’s easier that way.)

From A Catalonian Cave Church

February 5, 2014

Southern European Meditations, Part Three: Money Talks


(This is written with apologies to my wonderful economics professor David Jobson at Keystone College, so many years ago. If I have misunderstood or forgotten any of the lessons you taught me, I regret that.)

Solution to the Economic Problem in Southern Europe



Sun and Shade in Seville

In Greece, where the economic distress is apparent, we saw solar panels stretched across agricultural fields and our guides told us they were owned by private individuals and not by the government. I was wondering why Germany and other more financially secure nations don’t loan the governments of Spain, Italy and Greece money to create an infrastructure for a solar power system. There is so much sunshine that the countries could reduce their dependence on oil and gas and sell the excess power to raise funds—perhaps even to Germany? They should be able to general adequate income to pay back the loans, with interest and improve their economic outlook.  

Sun and Shade in Rhodes

Sun and Shade on an Amalfi Hillside


























A Fortune to be Made

I don’t know how everyone else travels, but we schlep a lot of electronic gear and many people we met or observed did as well. Those traveling in pairs usually have two telephones, two cameras, and 
two computers or tablets (sometimes both). This means they have at least six devices that need to be charged. Since each device has its own set of peripherals, our bag of cords, spare batteries and foreign plug adapters take up significant suitcase space. Then we must find ways to charge the devices in foreign hotels where the rooms sometimes have only one or two unused and adaptable plugs. While traveling I wondered whether there might not be a lot of money in finding a solution, perhaps a universal charger with adapter incorporated. When I returned home I learned that Eesha Khare, an eighteen-year old Californian has invented a supercapacitor that charges devices in 30 seconds or less. Maybe the answer is on the way. Let’s hope it’s versatile enough for all our devices.

Value of the Euro

The American dollar pales in comparison to the Euro, making European travel expensive. Why is there no discussion in our country, at least in the popular media, about that disparity?

Prosperity or Enhanced Quality of Life?

Spain is struggling economically and yet—at least in the Southern part of Spain—the quality of life (for the employed, certainly) is excellent. Cities are clean. Parks are plentiful and manicured. Gardens are blooming and maintained. Public transportation is efficient. The main streets are broad and accommodate both pedestrians and bicycles. Historic buildings are in beautiful repair. In my own country, highways and streets are not cleaned often. Parks are trimmed but not maintained. Gardens are often non-existent, unless funded privately. Public transportation is not designed for people. The list goes on. I’m thinking that I might be happy with a poorer economy in our country if we had a better quality of public life.

Granada

Malaga

Seville



January 28, 2014

Southern European Meditations, Part Two: What to Wear


INTERNATIONAL CHIC


I live in a part of the country that prides itself on being “natural.” The result is that Northwestern women are not recognized internationally for their fashion, especially not for their hairstyles. In Paris I was stunned by the wonderful haircuts. All women, rich or middle-class, with long hair or short, curly hair or straight, were perfectly coiffed. 

Most of them were also beautifully clothed. Their outfits stand as the antithesis of current American “fashion,” clothes that appear to be pre-shrunk and then studded with rhinestones. Parisian women wear clothes with elegant lines. Their dresses and blouses do not cling to unfortunate figures.

And the Japanese tourists were especially stylish. They wear clothes that are comfortable and eye-catching at the same time.

Undecided: Are Japanese or French women more chic?

Decided: Women from every country shift their hips when their photo is taken. They place one foot forward, and slim themselves by a turn of the pelvis. They do not present a full frontal face to the camera. And many cock their heads when they smile.

Venetian Laundry Over an Alley

The Saga of the New Blouse

  
In Spain I found I needed a longer sleeved shirt, so I took my six words of Spanish and went shopping. In a shopping store that had EVERYTHING (clothing, electronics, a travel agency, a clinic for surgical procedures, and more), I found the blouse I wanted. When the blouse did not fit, the sales clerk ran to another department to find one that did. It was a no-iron, tailored blouse and I loved it. It wasn’t until I was purchasing it that I realized it was made by Jones of New York!
Venetian Laundry on a Building

And then one afternoon we walked down the streets in Barcelona. Something hit the sleeve of my lovely new blouse, a leaf from the overhanging tree I thought, and I brushed it off. As soon as I felt the yellow slime on my fingers, I knew it was bird droppings, right on the sleeve of my new shirt! Two men rushed up to help us, which surprised us, until we realized that a sweater I had tied around my waist was completely covered as were the backs of the legs on Gary’s slacks. I cannot imagine what kind or how many birds did this damage.


State of Undress

Rhodes attracts an odd collection of people: young women who run around in bikinis and young men in briefs, middle-aged women looking a little the worse for wear and middle-aged men, with bellies hanging over their shorts, who have forgotten how to shave or comb their hair. Too many have skin that looks like a pig’s after roasting on a spit. I wonder if it crackles when touched?
Tattered Greek Flat in Rhodes


The Tourist Tan


I grew up in Mississippi, so I always knew that a farmer tan was a tan from the shirtsleeves down and across the neck and face. While traveling I had a tourist tan. My arms were brown up over the edge of my shoulders, in a scoop around my neck, and on my face. My underarms and the folds in my elbows were white and my feet striped from my sandals.

Doing Laundry


The most unpleasant part of traveling is trying to find laundry service that is reasonable in price and accessible to our lodging. We spent two hours one day trying to locate a laundromat. Everyone sent us in the general direction. They were sure it was there, but we came to think none of them had ever been there. That laundromat turned out to be very nice, but the machines automatically dispensed fabric softener into the clothes, a cloying, nose-tickling perfume that eventually contaminated everything in our suitcases—and continues to haunt a few pieces that will not yield the smell.
Venetian Laundry Over a Canal

We did learn one laundry secret. If clothes have not dried, the hair dryer that almost all lodging now provides will finish things off, especially the more delicate items. And then there is the mini-bar. Many of them are hidden and they generate a lot of heat. We had one in a closet with shelves. The shelf above the little refrigerator dried lightweight clothes in an hour and heavier things in a bit longer stretch of time.

Most Pleasant Clothing Maintenance Job





--wiping the dust of ages from our shoes after trekking through the Parthenon, Knossos, Pompeii, the enormous Venetian fortification at Rhythmno, the ruins at Medina Al-Zahra, and Alhambra.