Summarizing some thoughts on my week in Azerbaijan

I last wrote about the long day trip to Quba, and the feeling of being hijacked. More about that in a bit.

Monday the group went to see the Fire Temple and its surrounding Zoroastrian Museum, of a sort. The place is a bit out of central Baku and is quite a large complex. The Zoroastrians who are still a practicing minority in several countries,but probably not in Azerbaijan, are adherents of the earliest kind of monotheism, which exalts a deity known as Ahura Mazda, known for wisdom. The place itself is a large courtyard with small rooms, or cells all around the outside and, in the center, a kind of temple with a fire burning constantly. The Zoroastrians  see fire as the way to spiritual wisdom and fire is always burning at places of worship, as I saw on my trip to Iran in 2008.

I don’t think there are many Zoroastrians in Azerbaijan today, certainly none were in evidence at the Temple or Museum and I forgot to ask. But there was no mention of them in the present tense.

Our lunch was in the restaurant on the compound and it started with a cooking demonstration of making a kind of stuffed pancake, with either herbs or ground lamb. Small balls of dough were ready to be rolled out, filled and folded in half before being cooked on a very hot dome shaped metal grill. The results were delicious! Another filling lunch followed the demonstration and then we were off to meet some more official types.

The bus took us back into central Baku, but this time to a different type of neighborhood. Very steep streets with broken sidewalks and litter led us eventually to our meeting with yet another government official. First we visited a beautiful, large,colorfully decorated mosque which is unique due to its origins as a donation from a woman. She was an “oil Baronness” and gave the money for this mosque from her earnings. The meeting was supposed to be with the woman who is the highest ranking female in the Moslem religious hierarchy, but actually most of the talking was from a man who is her superior. A great deal of yawning went on, and I did some interesting doodling on the allocated pad of paper at each seat around yet another huge conference table.

We walked down hill again and eventually back to our hotel. The streets in this area were not the perfect, European-looking white stone structures we had seen so much of. Here the buildings were old, gray, chipped and graffitied. They had the overhanging wooden balconies on the upper floor, some with laundry visible hanging where there are the most breezes. More young women wearing hijab, too. This was what I imagined Baku would look like, finally!

That evening our dinner was at a lovely restaurant on the top floor of a commercial building in the pedestrian shopping area not far from our hotel. The food was good, as usual. Afterwards I left a bit early with a few other women, before the tea was served!! Bill was staying behind, not feeling well and I wanted to see how he was doing. He is a stoic guy and seldom admits to physical infirmity, but he had been experiencing abdominal discomfort. He seemed better and I was relieved.

Tuesday morning we met our new friend Arzu for breakfast and we went to a place very near our hotel, along the wall of the Old City. It specializes in tandir cooking, very much like a tandoor in the north of India. At breakfast, we had freshly cooked bread straight from the tandir, along with cheeses, an herb and egg frittata like dish, eggs with tomatoes  and eggs with honey, both egg dishes were unusual and excellent.I had never liked eggs with tomatoes before ( like in Greek omelette) but this was different and delicious.

The conversation was even better and I believe that we will remain friends. She is a lawyer in Baku but went to graduate law school in the US . With 3 children and a very demanding job, she is a busy but warm woman who is very aware of the politics in the US and the impact of it on the rest of the world. I look forward to maintaining a correspondence with her.

The highlights of the rest of the day were a lunch in a place which, in the warmer months, must be magical! A high wall surrounds a large garden with small cabins and covered pavilions where families come in the summer for delicious lunches cooked over open fires. We enjoyed our lunch indoors, but the concept of the place was inviting. Then on to the Zaha Hadid designed Heydar Aliyev Expositon Center. It is an extraordinary work of design, swooping up and down with curves supposedly inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s famous photo of her dress billowing up over a subway grate. Inside, it feels very disorienting with uneven stairs and hard to find elevators to many levels. The first level is dedicated to the life of the “great leader of Azerbaijan independence” Haydar Aliyev himself. Other exhibits, especially one of musical instruments were more engaging.

One last stop of the day at the enormous new Heydar Aliyev mosque ( seeing some patterns here?). It is impressively large and I mean BIG! The portico at the main entrance must be 60-80 ft tall and that is half the height of the dome. Inside it is all white, with patterns in the plasterwork. Impressive, yes. Emblematic of a need to indicate power and control, maybe.

That night was one of the highlights of the trip for me. It was the first of the big public celebrations of the start of Nowruz, the ancient Persian Zoroastrian New Year- Spring holiday. Right outside the gate of the Old City, nearest our hotel, workers had erected a large platform. I just arrived in time to see some camels ridden by people in costumes pass through the gate into the Old City and continue up the steep street past the restaurant where we had breakfast that morning. Just outside the gate several horse drawn wagons passed by in the opposite direction. By then a huge bonfire was sending sparks and cinders and smoke out over the large crowd gathered around the platform. Fire is central to the Zoroastrian belief system and is an important part of the Nowruz ritual. Music was played loudly and various groups performed traditional dances, sang traditional songs ( I’m assuming the traditional part here, having no one to consult). I observed  many young adults in the crowd spontaneously breaking into traditional ( again I’m assuming) dance – men with men- in small groups in the crowd. And families with young children, some women in hijab, most without. Maybe I’m an optimist, but what I saw gave me hope the the younger generation in this country will hold onto some of the traditions of their ancestors. All too often “western culture” arrives and dominates and pushes out more traditional values and rituals. I hope it will be different here. It felt like a 4th of July party, but in March and without the patriotism. Nowruz seems like everyone’s favorite time of the year and everywhere I went I saw decorations – hanging over the pedestrian areas, in store windows and on street corners. All hotels are booked for the next week with tens of thousands of Iranians, and I’m sure many others, coming to really “get happy” in Baku for Nowruz!

So, what was this trip all about? The idea as I understood it,was to observe how the Jewish and Muslim communities co-exist in Azerbaijan and to learn from this. What I learned was that yes, in this small country bordered by three powerful countries, Iran to the south, Russia to the north and Turkey to the west, religion seems to not be the greatest concern to the people or to the government. Consistently I heard, from official sources and from individuals, that no one cared what religion anyone else followed. For the first time in a Muslim majority country, I did not hear the call to prayer . ( maybe once, to be honest, but that was not in Baku but in Shecki). Relatively few women wear hijab. Education from K-12 is compulsory and free, if not exactly up to the contemporary standards of individualized educational planning. Getting along with their neighbors is very important, since they could not defend themselves from any of them militarily. Learning to accommodate is perhaps the “secret sauce” of Azerbaijan.

Still, despite the assurances of the nice guy at the Diplomatic University, I had a feeling that free speech was not easy in this country dominated by one family. The current president is the son of the first president and he recently named his wife a first vice-president. The guides we had all refer to her frequently in adoring language, referring to her talents in everything from politics to cooking. No one openly comments on the government’s policies on anything. Even the woman representing the Jewish women in Quba spoke what sounded like a government pleasing complaint about Armenians rather than anything about her own community’s concerns.

Our detours to take in monuments to Armenian atrocities and the repetition of the complaints about the 1991-92 “massacre” by them in Karabach felt like an imposed narrative. It did happen and it was a terrible event, but there must be other things to talk about. Oil prices? Iran and Russia and Turkey as neighbors, how does that feel?

So why did we get this slant on our trip? Was it simply the way that the country deals with tourist groups from western countries? We had as one of the tour organizers a woman from Azerbaijan who has lived in Houston for many years. She is a passionate promoter of all things Azerbaijan. Her contacts made the trip possible- she seems to know everyone. I learned that she has developed a “sister city” relationship between Houston and Baku and helps to bring people of different sorts to Houston to meet locals there in similar businesses. One of the young women who came to the Shabbat dinner was a lawyer who had spent some time in Houston thanks to our friend. She in turn invited several other women, including the woman we had breakfast with on Tuesday.

At times, as I understood more of her role, I began to feel that our group was, in a way, pawns in her larger plan -To increase her importance in Houston somehow and in the Azerbanjani community of wealthy oil business related people, or something like that. Her insistence that we meet with lots of government institutions puzzeled me. What really did they offer us, other than modest gifts of books, tea, a tee shirt and a scarf?  Platitudes was what we heard from them, one after another.  How did that further the goals of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom? I don’t believe that anyone from our group actually learned anything about religious acceptance and inter-faith  cooperation that was new. Since that is not a problem in Azerbaijan, they did not offer us examples of how they dealt with it.

But a group of Americans whose presence could be interpreted in any way that was useful to the government, that is more interesting. We were photographed, filmed and written about by a variety of guys during the trip. No one explained who the guy was who appeared on the bus for our trip to Quba. “A journalist” he told me, free lance. He was nice enough and I chatted a bit with him at our late lunch that day, but really how important was our visit to Azerbaijan to the government? We represent only ourselves, not in any officially sanctioned manner. But given that the media is controlled by the government, what spin they put on our visit is anyone’s guess. Lending legitimacy to a government known for exceptional corruption ( ranking 123 out of 176 countries in 2016 according to Transparency International) may have been our lasting legacy in Azerbaijan. I don’t know that this is true, I’m speculating. Any other interpretations of our trip are very welcome and I may be corrected by anyone who has another viewpoint. This is only my opinion based only on my experience in Azerbaijan and in other countries with less than free press ( Iran, Cuba, Libya, way back in 2005 under Ghadaffi). I just don’t like being used, and that is how I ended up feeling.

Given all that I have said, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and am grateful to the organizers of the trip from the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom and all the others who worked so hard to make everything go smoothly, most of the time. But a perfect trip would be boring and who wants that? Go to Azerbbaijan and see for yourself!

Karen

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Published in: on March 19, 2017 at 8:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

On our way to meet some “Mountain Jews”, with a hijacking, of a sort

Quite a long day I had, but over-all pretty interesting. We got on our bus around 9, and instead of leaving for the 150km drive to Quba, or Guba, our destination for the day, we drove all over the central part of Baku looking at statues and a monument to a spy. You could call it frustrating, but that would not be quite accurate. It felt like our agenda had been hijacked, but why? Our guide for the day, Fouad, the fellow with the acccordian folder full of old photographs that he uses to illustrate his history walks/talks, just decided that that was the way to start the day. No one seemed able to challenge him.This was only the first hijacking of the day

The consequence was that we arrived in the town of Quba, or Guba or several other spellings, where a community of unique Jews lives, at least an hour behind our stated schedule and a nice elderly man from the Jewish community was waiting to take us around. We met him at a prearranged spot and he joined us on the bus to escort us to one of the 4 Jewish cemeteries in this tiny community. “Mountain Jews” are a unique subgroup of the Jewish people who have lived in the Caucasus Mountains for thousand of years. It is believed that they may have migrated from Ancient Israel into Persia as early at the 8th century Before the Common Era. They now live in a few villages in Azerbaijan and Georgia and in parts of Russia.They speak a language known as “Tat” or “Jude-Tat” which comes from Iran and has aspects of ancient Hebrew. Most also speak Russian and Azeri. They are known to live in harmony with the surrounding Muslim neighbors and that is why we want to meet some of them.

The cemetery is high on a hill over-looking the whole town and the river. The first reaction I and many others had upon seeing the first set of graves was “Oh, my God! How weird!”. Nearly every headstone was tall and large and had a photograph of the person in the grave staring out at you. Some of these photos are 4 ft tall, some larger! It’s the strangest feeling to see dozens of faces looking back at you,literally “from the grave”. I posted some photos on Facebook. As one man said, “well, it’s not in accordance with Jewish tradition as we know it, but it means that my grandchildren and their children could know what I looked like.” True, but still a strange feeling to see them all.

Onward to find the local Purim festivities. Because we were so late arriving in Quba, we missed the performance of the reading of the Megilla and whatever the youth of the town were doing in celebration. We did run into the woman who is the president of the Jewish Women’s Association who told us that the biggest issue she is concerned about is the lack of recognition of the murder of thousands of Azeris in Korobach in 1992 at the hands of the Armenians. The evil Armenians is a theme often repeated by officials from all different disciplines. Hearing it from this woman in the Jewish town was really kind of strange. Is that really the most important thing in her community today?  She was just about the only person we saw.

In fact, we wandered around the town trying to figure out where everyone was! We went to the largest synagogue to see it and then our guide got a call summoning us to the Yeshiva, or Jewishschool, to see what the Purim celebration was like. We walked a few blocks and up the steps to the Yeshiva’s main hall.There were 3 really long tables set with many plates of food and lined on both sides with what looked to be the entire Jewish community! Little kids, elderly men, teenagers , mostly segregated by sex, but not all. In we all walked, more than 25 people, obviously not from around there. At first mostly we got stares, then we spotted the woman we had just been listening to down the street, then our leader was speaking into a microphone about the Sisterhood, and then a man was making a speech about the importance of Jewish- Muslim relations and the obnoxious TV camera guy was filming it all and the journalist was writing notes.

Everyone stopped eating and watched the show. The musicians started playing and some of our group proceeded to start dancing and then a few people from the local community joined in and pretty soon the scene was kind of amazing. I couldn’t decide how I felt about it. On the one hand, we barged into their party and took it over. On the other hand, at the very least it would make a good story. “Remember that Purim when all those strange people showed up and talked and danced and then left?” Maybe we gave them a good memory at least.

By this time it’s nearly 3pm and we haven’t had lunch. The food at the Purim party smelled really good, but there were too many of us to take up the offer to join them, so we declined. The plan was to go to some restaurant in a hotel.We got back on our bus and headed out of town to a new resort hotel that looked like something Trump would build. The lobby was more than 2 stories tall and well, it was all just too much. We had lunch in a downstairs dining room, used the rest rooms and left feeling very out of place and vaguely unhappy.

Our agenda called for us to go to a local mosque and a carpet factory before returning to Baku for a sea-side dinner. However, the second hijacking was about to occur. Instead of the carpet workshop we were taken to see a Memorial to the Martyrs of the Armenian Atrocity,or something like that, a ways out of the city again. I admit that I chose to stay on the bus, with one or two others and take a bit of a nap rather than see it and it’s Museum up close. Bill came back and said it was pretty depressing, not only in content but in the cold concrete physical space. This ate up another 45-60 minutes. Why was this added to our agenda? What did it have to do with our goals and mission? Who decided it was a good idea? No one took responsibility, some of the group developed a theory that the government wants to push the Armenians are bad idea from every possible angle at every possible opportunity. Can’t argue with that theory, it certainly felt that way!

The day had been very chilly and very gray all day and now it was getting late and starting to be dark. Nonetheless we drove back to Quba and to the mosque where our co-founder explained some aspects of Islam to a group of us who were interested. And then on to the carpet workshop for an explanation of the craft of hand-tying carpets and some time in their sales place. It was after 6 by the time we arrived and about 7 by the time we left.

Our “agenda” had called for leaving Quba around 4pm with dinner at around 6. That was never realistic, but the delays and alternate activities pushed our timing back more than 3 hours! By the time we neared Baku and the restaurant that was chosen for dinner, many of us were too tired to go. It was 10pm when the bus dropped off about half of the group at the restaurant and then took the remaining tired travelers back to the hotel, and then returned to the restaurant and them back to the hotel. Poor driver! At least the traffic wasn’t bad at that hour. I understand that the late night diners got back to the hotel after 12. Bill and I had a light meal upstairs and crashed well before midnight.

We are seeing a lot of this country, and I do like it and the people very much. Tomorrow we go to a Fire Temple! I saw Zoroastrian’s in Iran in 2008 so I’m excited to see this. More tomorrow, Inshallah.

Karen

 

Published in: on March 13, 2017 at 5:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

A bit of Baku center city,a quest

Saturday morning, Shabbat for the observant , means going to the synagogue. So, some of the group did that and some of us broke into small groups and headed out to explore the central areas of Baku. I was in search of old or “antiq” jewelry as souvenirs. In Iran and in Turkey I had found places that had odds and ends of old, usually silver-ish traditional style necklaces and earrings. This sort of thing is perfect to bring home- low intrinsic value, small and light. Baku being a very old city gave me hope that there might be a source of interesting stuff. I was ready for the hunt.

Three of us headed out to explore the Old City area, where our hotel is located. It is a hilly part of Baku, but not far from the Caspian Sea. I had asked everyone I encountered about where to look and one after another I got a vague wave of the hand and the comments “in the Old City”, somewhere. There are quite a few small shops selling souvenir craft stuff, ceramics from Turkey, small machine made carpets and shiny fake-looking jewelry items. One guy had some old stuff, but it wasn’t really anything I’d use and his price was way too high ( $150 for one that needed repair). I kept dragging my small band from shop to shop. They were patient and understanding – a quest is important when traveling, it gives you a focus for asking questions and interacting with people.  

As we walked along music started, and we walked a bit faster towards the sound. People were standing on a section of wall dancing with their arms in the air and wide smiles on their faces! Down the slope a bit there were more people dancing to the music, in a long line. It started, and then it ended and everyone left. I have no idea what it meant, but it seemed joyous and that is always good.                

I did manage to find a guy who sold me some silver bangles with interesting inscribed patterns. He said that they were “old” but the lack of signs of wear left me unconvinced. Still, my quest was somewhat resolved,not totally satisfactorily. Oddly enough, it was time for lunch and one of my small band had researched food options in Baku before leaving for the trip and suggested a place not in the Old City but not far away. We encountered another small group and decided to head out to lunch together. The kebab place turned out to have excellent food and we enjoyed ourselves. On the way back to the hotel there was a distraction- a shop selling knock-offs of famous designer clothes and accessories. Some of us were more drawn to this display than others, but somehow we all managed to be entertained by the bright colors.

Back at the hotel, the schedule said that at 3 the group was walking to the Carpet Museum and Modern Art Museum, but when we arrived back at 2, much of the group was assembled in the Atrium listening to a woman who apparently was from the office of the President talking about  religious freedom in Azerbaijan. I ducked out and headed to my room to reconnect with Bill who had been out walking along the Caspian for a few hours. We decided to take the rest of the afternoon off and hang out in the sunlit atrium of the hotel and catch up on writing and reading. After a bit, I felt like some tea and walked over to the small cafe off of the hotel lobby. I asked for two cups of tea and maybe a piece of their version of baklava. The waiter brought it to us ,including a plate of 4 pieces of the nutty delicious cake(that’s how it comes, apparently).  We didn’t mean to, but he brought it and we ate it!

Dinner was at a converted caravansary down the street and then we were going to experience celebrating Purim at the “European” synagogue, a bus ride away. A caravansary was a particular kind of building which was designed to function as  a stable for camels, a hotel for the traveling traders and a kind of hall for trading goods from their caravans.I first saw a caravansary in the south desert area of Iran, out in the middle of what seemed to be nowhere. The color of the stone from which it was made was just the same as the desert all around, so it blended in to the surroundings very well.

This caravansary is different , in a city rather than the desert is a very big difference. On a high part of the Old City, and about a quarter mile from the Caspian Sea, I could imagine a string of camels trudging up the cobblestones and under the archway into the courtyard of the caravansary. Our dining room was down in a stone basement with an arched ceiling. A long table was set for our large party of 30+. The evening took a detour due to the celebration of the birthday of one of the founders of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom which included a delicious cake and surprise musicians. They had local instruments and also sang. Everyone got involved in dancing to Hava Nagila deep under Baku! With a lot of good energy surging through our group, we descended the hill and boarded our bus for the Purim celebration.

The synagogue is Orthodox, with a central bima, or raised platform for reading from the Torah, and a balcony for the women. Not my cup of tea, but for Purim, women were allowed downstairs, with screens were erected lest men see women dancing and enjoying themselves. We arrived while the Megillah, the story of how Esther saved the Jews of old Persia and defeated the evil advisor to the King,by the name of Haman was still being read. The tradition is that each time the name Haman is read, the assembled crowd boos and bangs on things and tried to drown out his name. And there can be drinking involved.And then, there is loud music and dancing. I hadn’t been to a Purim celebration since my sons were young and it was fun, for a while.

Bill and I retired to the waiting bus and met up with a few others who had decided that enough was enough for that evening. Another day in Baku. Tomorrow we go to meet the “Mountain Jews” in Quba.

Karen
  

Published in: on March 13, 2017 at 4:25 am  Leave a Comment  

Meetings, meetings, meetings and Shabbat dinner

The organizers of this trip have done amazing work, and I give them a tremendous amount of credit. They convinced a number of Azerbanjani government ministries that the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom was worth their time to meet. We have no real status, no authority and no power and yet, there we were in the conference room of the Minister of Education discussing the Azerbanjani  education system and how it deals with issues of bullying! Everyone was very nice and seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say, after telling us about how the country inherited a Soviet style education system which valued a more rote style that they believe is not what is best for their country. They are working to change the system, little by little. They built a great many new schools in the past few years, with the oil money that drives this economy. The downturn in oil prices must be having a big impact on many projects. One question that was raised by our group concerned the role of religious schools in the country. There are a few, but they are totally separate from the public schools. I am getting the impression that here in Azerbaijan, religion really does live separately from government. The information we are getting from different sources seems consistent. This is surely the only majority Muslim country where religion really is not the focus of the country. Very few women wear hijab, we don’t hear the call to prayer and there is alcohol everywhere!

From the Education Ministry we took our bus to the quite new campus of the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy University.The campus is on a hill and currently consists of 3 gorgeous buildings, all with “smart” technology as well as echos of some of the more traditional elements of the local architecture. We were escorted and interacted with a smooth and worldly young-ish man who is a vice-chancellor and in charge of the foreign students. The programs include international economics, business and computer science among others. Our guide showed us through a classroom building where the floor of the central atrium space was designed out of different marbles in imitation of a traditional carpet pattern. The library has all of the most up to date technologies and a cafe in the lobby. In the student center building, with fast food and a coffee shop on the ground floor and faculty offices and some meeting rooms upstairs, we had a chance to ask our guide a few more questions. Pointing to the window, he said “that building with the curved side is the Trump Tower, but the letters have all been removed”. He had read the New Yorker article ( seems like everyone here has read it) and agreed that the company Trump was in business with has some shady dealings in it’s background , but he did not believe that there could possibly be any connections with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, as described in the article. Me, I figure that the New Yorker has been right about so many things – remember it broke the Abu Ghraib story- that I’ll wait to see if anyone can actually disprove the connection. 

We chatted and chatted some more, then eventually headed for the bus only to encounter the Chancellor of the 2000 student institution, a former long-term Ambassador to the US from Azerbaijan. He seemed quite happy to chat, too. by this time, we are running really late, and there is one more meeting on the agenda. It cannot be moved, so we are delaying lunch again, until after we meet with the State Committee on the work with Religious Institutions. Another conference room, another long table, photographer and this time a video camera. Most of us are pretty burned out on meetings and really need lunch, it’s now around 2:30pm. We finally leave and are waiting on the sidewalk, blocking other pedestrians waiting for the main organizers, Sheryl and Irada and Attia when we learn that they are being interviewed for a local television station! More delays before lunch! Finally we can head back towards our neighborhood and lunch was quick and delicious.

Some down time, but not too much because it’s Friday night and Shabbat services will be held at 6:30 in the hotel, followed by dinner. 

I haven’t been to a Friday night Shabbat service in many many years. While I was raised in a Conservative synagogue, my adult life has been with much more liberal institutions of Judaism, if any. This evening the service was led by our leader Sheryl’s husband, a rabbi in the conservative tradition. There was lots of unfamiliar Hebrew, the Kaddish prayer for the Dead was recited twice ( I don’t understand that at all) and in general it was mostly a frustrating experience. There was a short Amidah, or standing silent prayer, during which I tried to ask myself why I felt so alienated from so much of the tradition I was supposed to be a part of.I didn’t come up with an answer, but I learned later that I was not alone in my feelings. Religion is a complicated aspect of life and so personal. The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom is trying to bridge the gap between Islam and Judaism through increased understanding and exposure. That is a great idea, but we need to find ways to learn more about each other’s traditions in open and frank discussions. It’s not easy, that much I know just from trying to do the same with other Jews about our religion and the variety of ways there are to be Jewish.I am looking forward to more experiences of shared traditions.

Irada, the Azerbaijan/American woman who is an unpaid, self-motivated booster in the US of all things Azerbaijan from her home in Houston, had invited a few women who she knew here who might be interested in  attending the service and the dinner after upstairs in the hotel. One or two of the 6 women had Jewish backgrounds, the others were Muslim to varying degrees. One woman ended up sitting across from me at dinner and we engaged in a lively conversation covering topics from religion to politics and freedom of the press. By the end of the evening we exchanged cards and as of this afternoon, I think we might be able to meet up before we leave Baku. She is a lawyer/consultant for a large international firm and extremely bright and worldly. I have a feeling that we might become friends, at least via email and Facebook!

Karen

Published in: on March 11, 2017 at 1:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

From sea to mountains,and back. Partial post

At the moment, technology is defeating me. I wrote this, then went to dinner. After dinner I added another 500 words. WordPress is supposed to auto-save every minute. Apparently this time it didn’t, so when I went to re-look at it all, somehow the last section disappeared. I’m too tired to re-write it now. Maybe tomorrow. Sorry.
After breakfast we got on the bus and headed out of Baku, to the north-west. Our destination was the mountain community of Sheki or Saki, or Seki, various spellings of the same place. We spent the night in a new resort hotel higher up on the same mountain.Our drive led us through new and not so new suburban areas around Baku. As we got farther from the city, the arid landscape was more evident and patches of salt deposits shone white against the light brown earth. Few if any trees grow here, the soil is not fertile. Evidence of attempts to plant trees and the work of irrigating them was visible.

As we went higher in elevation, the surrounding landscape became greener. At a switch-back in the “highway” the bus pulled over so that we could climb down and look out at the panorama of the mountains out ahead of us. It was International Women’s Day, which is celebrated here with gifts of flowers to all the women in one’s life. At breakfast in the hotel every women was handed a bouquet of paper white narcissus, lovely to look at but, in my case, a noxious smell! I guess it is something in my personal chemistry, but I was very pleased to leave then behind!

However, Elchin, our tour manager, had lovely pink roses for all of the women in our group and that I liked very much!

At the spot where our us stopped there were several young men trying to sell flowers, as we saw all through the countryside in our trip today.Even in the restaurant where we stopped for a buffet lunch, the female kitchen staff walked through the dining room holding red roses!

Our next stop was for a bathroom and tea and jam break at a outdoor dining pavilion on a lovely/windy hillside. Outside of hotels, most of the toilets we are encountering are of the squat over the ceramic “hole” in the floor variety. This works just fine for most of us, although some women object vigorously each time there is no option. Leaving home means learning about how others live, including how they handle their bodily needs. It’s always interesting to experience the world as others do, at least for me!

The next time we stopped was to visit one of the few churches of the Udi Christian sect. I’m really not sure exactly what sets them apart from general Christianity but the style of their cross was fascinating and I wish I could figure out the photo to blog issue! It seems to have tulip shapes on the ends but they are actually meant to be crescent moons, reflecting something about their relationship to the moon. Two men met us and answered some questions about their faith and the structure which was rebuilt after the Soviet era where many houses of faith were damaged or destroyed and thousands of believers were killed.

The air was heavy with the smoke from fires burning up the fallen branches and trimmings from the winter. Being a Californian and very aware of air pollution it was really shockingly smoky everywhere we traveled as the practice of burning was prevalent all across the rural areas. Many of us felt our breathing impacted just a bit by the smoke.And the visual impact was also significant as the landscape was blurred by the smoke.

After a bit of a long drive through increasingly green and hilly countryside,past many small and some large flocks of sheep, we arrived in Sheki so that some of the group could attend late afternoon prayer in one of the city’s mosques. While they prayed I wandered around a bit and took some pictures,including a trio of taxi drivers who loved posing for me. I’d include it here, but I still can’t figure out how to connect the camera and the iPad. Total frustration!

There is a lovely river that flows through the center of town, with bridges crossing it. Very nice place.

Our hotel was not in town but up higher on the mountain, it wants to be a “resort” and maybe it is, in ski season. Although I didn’t see the usual ski lift apparatus or any other sign of that sort.

We went to our room, on the 6th floor, through an elevator lobby large enough for a wedding party and down a hallway so wide 8 people could walk abreast, easily! Who designs these places?

Dinner was up the hill at the related restaurant that is not actually in the hotel. Another feast, but it’s all fine and this time we went around the table introducing ourselves. We were encouraged to talk a bit about why we joined the Sisterhood which was a fascinating listen.

The room was so hot that we had to open the door to the balcony to allow for some cooling-wasteful but what can you do?

After breakfast ( we arrived too early, just moments before they agreed to be open at 8am and confusion reigned in the breakfast room!) we dropped our luggage on the bus and hopped into 3 small vans for the ride to the near-by village of Kish to see the other Armenian Christian church. Getting there was part of the adventure. Heavy rains earlier in the year had washed out the only bridge over the now dry and very wide river that separates Kish from our hotel. So the vans had to negotiate a temporary dirt dam full of potholes and then the very narrow steep cobblestone streets of the village. We got out and wandered into the courtyard of the restored church. It was one of the victims of the Soviet era

Published in: on March 10, 2017 at 7:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

From the Sea to the Mountains, and back again

After breakfast we got on the bus and headed out of Baku, to the north-west. Our destination was the mountain community of Sheki or Saki, or Seki, various spellings of the same place. We spent the night in a new resort hotel higher up on the same mountain.
Our drive led us through new and not so new suburban areas around Baku. As we got farther from the city, the arid landscape was more evident and patches of salt deposits shone white against the light brown earth. Few if any trees grow here, the soil is not fertile. Evidence of attempts to plant trees and the work of irrigating them was visible.
As we went higher in elevation, the surrounding landscape became greener. At a switch-back in the “highway” the bus pulled over so that we could climb down and look out at the panorama of the mountains out ahead of us. It was International Women’s Day, which is celebrated here with gifts of flowers to all the women in one’s life. At breakfast in the hotel every women was handed a bouquet of paper white narcissus, lovely to look at but, in my case, a noxious smell! I guess it is something in my personal chemistry, but I was very pleased to leave then behind!
However, Elchin, our tour manager, had lovely pink roses for all of the women in our group and that I liked very much!
At the spot where our us stopped there were several young men trying to sell flowers, as we saw all through the countryside in our trip today.Even in the restaurant where we stopped for a buffet lunch, the female kitchen staff walked through the dining room holding red roses!
Our next stop was for a bathroom and tea and jam break at a outdoor dining pavilion on a lovely/windy hillside. Outside of hotels, most of the toilets we are encountering are of the squat over the ceramic “hole” in the floor variety. This works just fine for most of us, although some women object vigorously each time there is no option. Leaving home means learning about how others live, including how they handle their bodily needs. It’s always interesting to experience the world as others do, at least for me!
The next time we stopped was to visit one of the few churches of the Udi Christian sect. I’m really not sure exactly what sets them apart from general Christianity but the style of their cross was fascinating and I wish I could figure out the photo to blog issue! It seems to have tulip shapes on the ends but they are actually meant to be crescent moons, reflecting something about their relationship to the moon. Two men met us and answered some questions about their faith and the structure which was rebuilt after the Soviet era where many houses of faith were damaged or destroyed and thousands of believers were killed.
The air was heavy with the smoke from fires burning up the fallen branches and trimmings from the winter. Being a Californian and very aware of air pollution it was really shockingly smoky everywhere we traveled as the practice of burning was prevalent all across the rural areas. Many of us felt our breathing impacted just a bit by the smoke.And the visual impact was also significant as the landscape was blurred by the smoke.
After a bit of a long drive through increasingly green and hilly countryside,past many small and some large flocks of sheep, we arrived in Sheki so that some of the group could attend late afternoon prayer in one of the city’s mosques. While they prayed I wandered around a bit and took some pictures,including a trio of taxi drivers who loved posing for me. I’d include it here, but I still can’t figure out how to connect the camera and the iPad. Total frustration!
There is a lovely river that flows through the center of town, with bridges crossing it. Very nice place.
Our hotel was not in town but up higher on the mountain, it wants to be a “resort” and maybe it is, in ski season. Although I didn’t see the usual ski lift apparatus or any other sign of that sort.
We went to our room, on the 6th floor, through an elevator lobby large enough for a wedding party and down a hallway so wide 8 people could walk abreast, easily! Who designs these places?
Dinner was up the hill at the related restaurant that is not actually in the hotel. Another feast, but it’s all fine and this time we went around the table introducing ourselves. We were encouraged to talk a bit about why we joined the Sisterhood which was a fascinating listen.
The room was so hot that we had to open the door to the balcony to allow for some cooling-wasteful but what can you do?
After breakfast ( we arrived too early, just moments before they agreed to be open at 8am and confusion reigned in the breakfast room!) we dropped our luggage on the bus and hopped into 3 small vans for the ride to the near-by village of Kish to see the other Armenian Christian church. Getting there was part of the adventure. Heavy rains earlier in the year had washed out the only bridge over the now dry and very wide river that separates Kish from our hotel. So the vans had to negotiate a temporary dirt dam full of potholes and then the very narrow steep cobblestone streets of the village. We got out and wandered into the courtyard of the restored church. It was one of the victims of the Soviet era

 

Published in: on March 8, 2017 at 6:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Get Ready! Traveling again soon to…

Another trip coming soon! Azerbaijan!

On March 3, Bill and I leave SF for NYC, then on to Baku, Azerbaijan. We will return home March 23, Inshallah!

This adventure to a rather obscure vacation destination is the result of my becoming involved with the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a national organization dedicated to improving Muslim-Jewish relations, one woman at a time. Azerbaijan has a long history of good relations between Jews and Muslims and we will be visiting groups of both faiths.

The Azerbaijan part of the trip is 9 days, but we will be in NY 3 nights on the way. Then we are going to spend 8 nights in Berlin. I was last in Berlin in 1971 and, as we all know, lots has changed. People have been telling me how much I will love Berlin for years now and finally I’ll get to see it for myself. Seeing things for myself has been the underlying theme of my travels for some time now, and I realized that became my goal back in 1971.

That summer I traveled for about 3 weeks with a group of mostly English people, with a few Aussies, in a 15 passenger van from Germany to Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the Soviet Union, Poland and Germany and into West Berlin. And back to England.

The trip really opened my eyes. Standing in lines to buy food for our breakfasts in the campsite north of Leningrad ( now St. Petersburg, again) and going into nearly empty department stores and seeing women plowing their fields with oxen and wooden plows caused me to re-evaluate what I’d been told by our government about the great danger that the Soviet Union represented to our way of life. While the geopolitical realities are quite different from the lives of ordinary people, the wide gaps in quality of life between the US and the USSR led me to question how big of a threat this country really was to us. Yes I was naive, and in many ways I still am, but I do think I was a little bit right. The arms race was unsustainable, especially for the USSR but we didn’t hear much about that. At some point the needs of the people for material goods and greater connection with the rest of the world won out. And the USSR is no more, at least for now. Putin seems determined to rebuild it, but that’s not my concern at the moment.

So, I plan to resume writing when we are in Azerbaijan and I invite you to read and comment. I’ll try to get photos into the blog because they really do make it better. I recently upgraded my iPad to a new lighter weight Air2 and I’m trying to figure out the photo part before I leave.

I’m very excited about this trip – the other travelers will be a big part of the interest for me. I’ll meet SOSS members from all over the country and from both faiths. I will bring my experience back to San Francisco and I hope that it will enrich my efforts to build a local Chapter of the Sisterhood.

More after March 6.

Karen

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Published in: on February 25, 2017 at 12:42 am  Comments (1)  

Tuscany in the rain

I haven’t written for a while, oh for lots of reasons. Lazy being one major reason.I realized just now that I started a post on Ravenna, but only got as far as a title. I was very tired that night. I did post photos and some comments on Facebook if anyone is interested. Gosh, those mosaics were so awesome!

We took the train from Bologna to Florence on Thursday morning, found the Budget Car Rental office and waited along with lots of other people for a bit more than an hour before we left for our agriturismo in a snappy Fiat 500L. Driving a manual transmission felt awkward for a while, but it came back quickly. Kind of fun, except in slow traffic.

In less than an hour we were in an idyllic courtyard of a working vineyard/farm run by a dynamic woman named Carla. She gave us a tour and explained that straight agriculture is too hard a way to make a living these days, but tourists fill in the gap very nicely! This place, Tenuta di Mensanello, has both rooms and full apartments. We have a room and breakfast and, if we want dinner. We do want dinner!

This morning, after another sumptuous breakfast, I was looking around for some locations to do a bit of watercolor later in the day and discovered one of the apartments which was unoccupied, with the key in the door. Naturally, I walked in and Bill stayed outside.I figured I wasn’t going to trash anything, so who would mind? The place had a living room/dining room/kitchen and 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. Nothing fancy, but really livable. You could easily make meals and then one can always choose to eat 3 courses+ dessert for 22 euros right next door!

The sun was out this morning, unlike yesterday. Yesterday , Friday I think, we drove to Siena, about 40 min from here. We found parking and hiked up into the city proper. I had been there once before, but nearly 30 years ago, so it was pretty new to me. Besides, everywhere in Italy, tourism has escalated and become the dominant cultural form.There are highly organized parking lots all outside the city walls proper, with plenty of parking, for a price.

Siena is pretty big, compared to Venice,but the sheer numbers of people in groups, with headphones , in small groups with a guide, or just like us, a couple, was staggering.We began our visit by having a bit of refreshment at a cafe on the Campo plaza. The rain was light at first and the tourists on the Campo were milling about. Then it let loose with bucketloads of water pouring down and the plaza emptied fast. We were under a large umbrella and stayed put. I tried to draw the Campo, but gave up in frustration. As soon as the rain lightened, the crowds moved back in. The Campo, where the annual horse race called “The Palio” is run is large, irregular and the tourists kept getting in the way! then we decided to head for the enormous Gothic style Palazzo Publico to see the frescos and other interior pleasures.

The building itself is a wonder- built in the 14th Century, it was the government center, the City Hall of it’s day. In the manner of the time, the city fathers commissioned frescos, paintings, decorative work on the plaster, the inlaid marble floors and intricately inlaid and carved wooden benches from local and not so local craftspeople. Much of the art is therefore more or less secular. Church and state were firmly intertwined then and so , along with allegories of good and bad government ( fantastic! What images of debauchery! Fields gone fallow, dead bodies in the streets, buildings in collapse!) are huge paintings of Mary, of Jesus and many many biblical scenes. I’ll put some pictures on Facebook.

No photography is allowed inside, but really, without a flash how much harm can e done? I really really loved the image of a knight on horseback at one end of a huge room ( the other held Mary and company, lots of gold). I waited for th guard to wander off and took a few pictures. I noticed another woman trying to do the same thing, so I “spotted” for her and nodded when th guard was away again. Later I chatted with her and discovered that she is a recently retired art history teacher from  Dundee, Scotland.

We thought it was time to go to see the Duomo,or main church and have lunch on the way. Up a steep street we spotted a cute place, with awnings and clear plastic “walls” on a small piazza and walked in . We ordered some, home made pappardelle with a sauce of wild boar ( for me) and fusilli pasta with a caper sauce for Bill- both delicious. And then the rain started trying to drown everyone again! Sitting on one side was a youngish couple from Augsburg, Germany and on the other side a young woman from NY there for a wedding on Saturday. We all hung out and had dessert, and coffee and waited for the heavy rain to let up.

The Duomo is truly amazing. A fantasy of black and white stripes in side and out, with really intricate Gothic style white marble carved into all sorts of shapes on the facade with added shiny gold and red and green marble accents.There is never too much gold or marble in Italy! Inside, the floor is enough to make you keep your eyes on the ground. And, Donatello’s famous “St. John the Baptist” sculpture is in there too,looking really different from the other statuary, with his shaggy hair and shredded clothes. All of the other Saint-types are much better groomed! Lots of people were in there, but it is just huge and has side chapels larger than my house, so it wasn’t too densely occupied in most areas. Visually overwhelming I’d have to say. LIke a lot of dessert.

We skipped the other “must-do”sights and wandered off in the direction of the car, eventually locating the gigantic underground, sort-of, parking structure. On the way home, with traffic and road construction, it felt a bit more familiar than I’d like to feel on vacation, I have to admit.

Today, as I mentioned earlier, it started out sunny and clear. That didn’t last long. We went to see Volterra and then San Gimigiano, each about 20 K from our home base, but we went from one to the other. I had read about Volterra, it’s Etruscan history, the alabaster carving tradition, but I wasn’t prepared for the crowds! In addition to the normal Saturday visitors, there was some kind of car thing going on. Some antique one, some middle aged sports cars, some I don’t know what, were roaring through the narrow streets of Volterrra. We wandered around a bit, decided to skip the museum but went to the rather modest Duomo to look around. Outside in the small plaza was the starting point of the car thing, so inside the church you could hear engines racing, people shouting and horns honking.

Idid enter a small “stampa” studio, shop. Thanks to Barbara Vanderborght I knew that word means fine art printing. Lovely woman there, and I bought 2 small prints. God knows what I’ll do with them, but I wanted to support her and I like them a lot.

We decided to head on to San Gimigiano and have lunch there before checking it out. We got there in about 30 minutes and then spent another 3o mins looking for parking.We had lucked out in Volterra, but here it seemed hopeless.Hunger was driving us and so we decided to leave and find lunch somewhere else and return, or not tomorrow. As it happens with karma, once we decided to leave, on our return pass by the lot, there were at least 10 spaces ( by the digital sign) available! So, we parked and found a pretty decent late lunch of veal scaloppine for me and artichoke risotto for Bill.

As often happens, with food in  our tummies, we had the courage to explore the town. One of our plans had been to attend a concert Sunday evening in San Gimigiano. But the difficulty parking and the hordes of tourists were making us reconsider.

With the help of the tourist office we located the place where the concert will be and learned that we can wait until tomorrow to buy tickets, and make a last minute decision about going or not.

Tourism is the most important industry in much of Italy, certainly true in San Gimigiano – the tourist office woman told us so! Tourists are everywhere we have been, certainly Venice, and Vicenza and Bologna. But I know how to navigate through Venice in ways that avoid most major tourist spots. I know that there are zillions of tourists in Venice at the same time I am there, but I have made my peace with that. It must be difficult for the actual Venetian to live there anyway, what with everything coming in on a boat. And fewer people actually live full time in Venice every year.

It must be acknowledged that tourism brings money into the community and takes away the sense of the community itself. When the inhabitants of a town can no longer walk down the Main Street to shop because of the hordes of tourists, is it still their town? But the money that tourism brings must pay for a lot of the services that people want, clean streets for one. I don’t know the answer. If I had to live on Pier 39, dodging tourists every time I went out of my door, would I stay in San Francisco?

Pray for some sun tomorrow. Bill and I would love to stay around this farm for at least part of the day, to paint in my case, or walk more in Bill’s. If it rains again, there is not good place to “hang out” other than our room, on the bed. We’ll see!

Ciao,

Karen

 

 

Published in: on September 17, 2016 at 8:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

A scare re:iPad, then Bologna delivers

Sunday my iPad refused to charge. I looked at the Internet for help, finally arranged a call from Apple for Monday morning. Nope,nothing the nice guy in Dublin could do,I’d have to take it to the nearest Apple Store which happened to be in Bologna, our next destination.

After a longer than  anticipated train ride ( our first train to Padua was late and we missed our connection), we arrived hot and sweaty at our Bologna hotel. The very helpful front desk clerk assured me that the Apple Store was not a long walk at all, and so , after collapsing for an hour , we set off with it in a bag on my shoulder. A very nice, helpful young man at the very familiar looking Apple Store, asked me what I was there for and I told him. We tried to plug it in there, but nothing happened. I was worried. Coming back right at 9am was suggested. In a last ditch effort, the nice Apple guy took a kind of paper clip-like wire device and poked around in the slot where the fire-wire connector goes. I didn’t see any unnatural “stuff” come out, but he offered to plug it in again, have us wait for 10 min. And see if anything different happened.I was doubtful. But it did start charging again! Who knows what was wrong, maybe some “belly-button” type lint got into it, it is 3+ years old (ancient for an apple product).

We stopped and had dinner and plugged the baby in and Voila la- 100% in the morning!!

Our hotel is in a pretty good location,  not exactly right near anything, but kind of near lots of things. This morning we walked down the same busy street, Via Independencia, we walked last night to go to the Apple Store.On both sides of the street the buildings lower floors are a series of arched loggias. Block after block , with shops and cafes all sharing a polished terrazzo sidewalk and enormous columns you can walk for long distances without ever being in the direct sun,nice in the late summer heat here. We did venture out of the shade to explore the center of the city based on the on-line tour of a former Fulbright scholar who lived here a few years ago. She was concerned that there was so little available to guide first-time visitors to Bologna, a city that she had come to love. For about 2 hours we followed her suggestions and saw a lot of the city center’s historic spots.

The main public library, for example, was at one time the stock exchange, then a basketball arena. In the last 20 years, Roman ruins were discovered underneath the building and in excavating them a decision was made to open it up to the public. One can look down through glass tiles in the lobby of the library, and then you can go downstairs and walk just above the ancient stones and tiles on metal walkways! Totally cool!

The huge church which makes one side of the public square, the Basilica di San Petronio.It is really, really big- hard to see just how large from the front. The building was begun in 1390 but still is not quite done! The facade is rough brick above and elegant white and pink marble below.According to legend, the Pope at the time learned about the plans for this really big, really elegant church and stopped it- fearing it would rival Saint Peter’s in Rome. Jealousy is a tyrant! The interior however is finished, my how it is finished! Marbles, frescos, gold leaf, and a pair of the saddest faced lions ever carved are all in there among the 22 chapels. There is also a strange “thing”, a Meridian Line that was installed into the floor as a sundial in 1655. I associated meridian lines with Celtic Mystics in Great Britian ( having encountered a few there), but this served a different purpose. Telling time and apparently it is very precise, for that sort of thing.

We went upstairs into what had been the first consolidated building for the University of Bologna from the 1500’s until 1803. It housed the medical school, hence the Anatomical Theater where cadavers would be dissected on a marble slab in the center of the elegantly wood panel led theater space. Students would listen to the lecturer who sat at a high lectern explaining what was happening. The room has a carving of Neptune on the ceiling and a pair of carved men who appear to have had their skins removed so as to reveal the muscles underneath hold up part of the lectern’s canopy.

The hallways are resplendent with paintings and especially with thousands of coats of arms  and names of students and with dedications to famous teacher/physicians going back hundreds of years.

Bologna feels very different than Vicenza. For one, it is about 3 times the population. Then the architecture is heavier, solid, massive. Although the theme around here is arcades, which make for a lot of similar feeling streetscapes that have space between the storefronts and the streets. The Centro, or city center of Vicenza is really nearly car-free and rather peaceful. Bologna is full of buses, motor scooters, taxis and people ! so much busier than Vicenza. I like it enough for our short visit, but I’m not sure I’d be in a hurry to return.

Late this afternoon, we took a short taxi ride to the Modern Art Museum, or MAMBO, which also houses the Museo Morandi. Giorgio Morandi was born here in Bologna and seldom left the place. He lived with  his 2sisters for his entire lifetime, which allowed him to do his work and to be distracted by the demands of ordinary life,like cooking meals or paying bills. By all accounts he was a generally nice man who  just wanted to be left alone most of the time. He did teach etching at the Fine Arts Faculty of the University, and he sold  a lot of work in his lifetime as well. According the the film at the exhibit, his sisters managed all of the money and he had no idea how much he had accumulated. When, in his late 60’s he proposed buying land and building a house n the  country near where he and his sisters had rented in the summers for many years, the architect proposed a house of some distinction, befitting a by then very famous painter.Apparently, Morandi asked for a piece of paper and a pencil and drew a very simple box-like house and told the architect that was what he wanted! Poor frustrated architect !

Seeing dozens of paintings and etchings and quite a few drawings and watercolors gave me a renewed appreciation for the work he produced.Keeping forms and color simple, he communicated through subtle line and shape. Sometimes the forms of the bottles and bowls are cramped together, sometimes spread out. Sometimes the light seems to radiate from the painting, sometimes they are nearly monochrome. Bill was kind of surprised to finally see this work, since I had raved about it. Hmm, was his response. He said that he could understand how, as a painter, I might find it interesting. Bill is a very patient man! We walked back to our hotel from the museum, now with a bit more understanding of Morandi and of Bologna.

Tomorrow we get up early and take a 8:50 train to  Ravenna to see the famous mosaics in a bunch of buildings. I may be too tired to write tomorrow night, or maybe not.

Thursday we again take a train, this time to Florence where we pick up a rental car and head directly out of town to our “agritourismo” not too far from Siena, for 4 nights. Then to Florence and the last 5 days of our trip. Can’t believe we are half way through.

Ciao and comments are welcome!

Karen

 

 

Published in: on September 13, 2016 at 8:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Castles, castles everywhere

No posts for a few days and here’s why. In Venice our internet went out Thursday afternoon and never returned. Friday morning we packed up and climbed over the one bridge between us and the best vaporetto to get us to the train station. Riding in the crowded boat with our luggage next to a young mother with her two kids and lots of tourists, I experienced my usual sadness about leaving my favorite city. There is nowhere like Venezia and a part of my heart responds to it every time I am there just as it did the first time I stepped out of the train station in 1987.

Arriving in Vicenza for the weekend we met up with friends Meike and Davide and their son Jordan. Meike is a young woman I have known since her teen years in San Francisco. Her Mother and I were in a book group together for many years and we all belonged to Or Shalom, the very progressive synagogue in town. She even babysat for Andy and Ben a few times. Meike met Davide while an undergraduate studying at the University of Padua and for them, the relationship has worked out for the long term. Settling in Vicenza, having a baby, buying a house all the life highlights of any young couple, but in Italian. They are hosting us in a delightfully helpful way and we appreciate it immensely.

Our small hotel is in the historic “Centro” of Vicenza,within the old city walls. We are just a block off of the Corso Palladino, the main pedestrian shopping and strolling street. It is busy with local shoppers as well as tourists at all hours of the day. Except for 1:30-4,because most shops close then for the  afternoon.It can be frustrating if your time is limited and you want  to get things done, but that is the way of life here.People don’t seem to want to be in a hurry. At home, everyone seems to be busy as a matter of course. Here, I just  don’t think that “busy” would be the response to the”How  are you?” Question that everyone asks so routinely. “Fine” is more likely.

Saturday Meike took us to see some of the Palladian villas close to Vicenza. The one we did see, “La Rotunda” was amazing ( the other was closed.  For a wedding). Its symmetrical, square shape topped with a huge dome, is a beautiful example of Palladio’s concept of returning to the classic forms in architecture. The interior of the dome as well as the  other ceilings in the building are covered with elaborate decoration, paintings and patterns that somehow seem at odds with the architecture’s simplicity. But maybe that is just my bias for “less is more”modernism. The setting of the house, on a hill surrounded by open fields has been maintained despite so many changes since it was built in about 1566. Still, standing on the terrace in the back of the house, looking  out, one  can easily delete the road passing between two rows of tall trees and see what Andrea Palladiio saw. The house is privately owned and is used by the owners regularly. One living room, furnished with comfortably upholstered chairs and sofas was especially inviting for a nice hour of reading with a breeze coming in the open windows. Alas, it was not offered!

We had lunch  at Meike’s home and got to see how Italians live today. Their place is really large, with 4 bedrooms and 3 baths on 3 levels with a small back garden and a garage. Lunch was a variety of different “flavored” of a kind of filled pasta I had never seen  before. Round, thickly filled pillows about 2″ in diameter filled with ricotta and prunes, one with ricotta and zucchini and one with a tomato flavored pasta and filling. Delicious ! With salad and Parmesan cheese, of course.

We left their house with their car so that we could drive ourselves to Marostica for our evening’s special event, the “Human Chess Game”. Based on a mid 20th century story set in Marostica, the town has produced a week-end long series of performances one time every 2 years since the 1940’s. It is a spectacle that involved about 600  residents of this small town(abut 13,000 population) about 30 minutes from central Vicenza. Arriving just after 6pm, we easily found parking next to the Castle and set off in search of dinner. Our first choice was fully booked ( we didn’t think of reserving ahead) but then another restaurant decided that it could accommodate us in about 30 minutes. We wandered off and looked at the historic, 14 century stone walls and high castle that surmount the hill above the City. Dinner was lovely and we made our way to our seats high in the temporary grandstands erected all around the main plaza of the City. The event begins at 9pm, well into the dark evening. The pageant includes about a dozen mounted horses, some of which take part in the  chess game, some just seem to be atmosphere. There were lots of men throwing long handled colorful flags around, children in scenes of medieval village life and a devil character whose role was amusing, if unclear to me. A monk in a brown habit wandered around with a small donkey as well,again unclear as to his role but definitely picturesque!

There was fire all around the chessboard on the pavement of the plaza to start, and fireworks at the end as well.The chess game was played with people as the chess pieces including 2 train-bearers for each Queen, a wonderful “Castle” boxy wooden structure on wheels for each castle and of course, Knights on real horses for the Knights. The horses did not always want to stand still on their squares and needed to be lead around a few times to calm them down. When it was all over, the lights turned the plaza reddish pink, fireworks shot out from the top of the Castle and then more fireworks spilled over the wall of the Castle like a waterfall, very beautiful. We eventually got out of the  parking lot, after waiting for many busses to fill up and depart first. By the time we got back to our hotel it was nearly 1am.

Look for some pictures on Facebook. I’ll try again to set up the wifi so that I can load photos directly to the blog. But not right now. Davide is coming any minute to show us around the Centro and then take us home for a home-made carbonara pasta using eggs from chickens they keep at his garage!

tomorrow we leave for Bologna.

Ciao,

Karen

 

Published in: on September 11, 2016 at 10:48 am  Comments (1)