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Monday, November 24, 2014

Walking the San Miguel de Allende Streets

As I meander daily down the cobblestone streets of my beautiful adopted city of San Miguel de Allende,  I look down a lot, not wanting to trip or fall on the rough cobblestones---not wanting to be one more member of the "Fallen Women's Club" of SMA. I've already been down that road when falling while dancing at a fiesta last February, celebrating the publication of my first novel.

But back to what I see when I walk down the streets: looking down affords me the opportunity to observe all the detritus of life here.  I am not using the word "detritus" in a pejorative way. No, I have come to appreciate the detritus. It is what makes life so real here, for all the things one sees are emblematic of a culture I have come to love. That doesn't mean to say it might be nice at times to see more trash cans along the streets, less trash in the arroyo near our house, and in the gutters. But, at the same time my observations give me pause. All this detritus tells me more about the people and their daily lives.  When one sees a dried corn husk with a bit of red salsa decorating its edges one knows someone nearby was eating a tamale that day, or I may see some candy wrappers when I pass one of the local elementary schools. The woman on the corner sells snacks and sweets (Mexican children eat far too much of this and that is perhaps why there is a high level of diabetes here; the cokes too certainly contribute).  Other objects of daily life are found in the gutters, such as Q-tips, rubber bands,  paper and plastic cups, some popcorn or fritos dropped out of a bag as someone ran home from the local tienda, or a tissue wrapper one finds around a stack of fresh tortillas. An old shoe may rest along side an electrical pole; one day a flattened baby shoe attracted my attention. Hopefully, the baby was okay even though he or she lost a shoe. Sticks dropped by a passing burro who carries his heavy load with such patience can be found, or a nopale leaf. People scrape the thorns off and eat these cactus leaves here. They're tasty, if prepared right.

One day, the lady I bought the cute handmade cloth horse from dropped her thread and it rolled into the gutter as she walked down the street bent from age and hard work. I ran to catch her and got a sweet toothless grin with words, Muchas gracias, Señora!  Life is in the streets here. Somehow, the  city streets in Portland where I used to live now seem sterile in comparison.  I must admit to the fact that I came home from Sweden two months ago raving to my husband how lovely it was to be in a place where everything was "so clean and organised." Life is full of contradictions!

Maybe it's just the human propensity for adaptation that is helping me to see past the dirt of my Mexican town and to readjust my thinking to one that is less judgmental, an attitude encouraged in last Sunday's presentation at the UU ( Unitarian Universalist Sunday service). Judging less leads to a healthier and happier life of acceptance and opens our hearts to new experience. Ted Englander, the presenter pointed out that there is a difference between discernment and judgment. I discern that perhaps it might be good if there were less detritus in the streets, but at the same time I don't judge it as "bad" now, or indicative of something distasteful. It is what it is. Refraining from negative judgment is almost impossible; we have a culture that thrives on judgment of other people,  places and ways of life. Negative judgements separate us from others. Eckhart Tolle talks about being aligned with what happens, taking the road of non-resistance, which ultimately leads to more happiness.

So, I'll keep walking these streets and seeing the positive, the insight they give me into my Mexican friends and neighbors.
 Maybe someday they'll see that cleaning up of the detritus leads to a safer and healthier environment, but for now I'm glad  I can be here and appreciate everyday!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Prague: Pastel City of Steeples and Spires




From the moment of my arrival in Prague, I was swooning over its beauty. Capital of the Czech Republic, a country with a rich cultural history, torn by invasion and political submission, Prague is multi-faceted. My first day was a combination of dealing with jet lag and lack of sleep after the long overnight flight from Chicago to Munich where I had a two hour stop-over. Happily I had only a 50 minute flight to Prague. I was greeted by the smiling face of a Czech woman who transferred me to the Bishop Hotel, situated on a  dead end street in a charming sector near the Charles Bridge, a main crossing, for residents and tourists alike, over the picturesque Vltava River. 

Hotel Bishop in Prague 

  1. I woke up early the next day, eager to get out and walk the city. I took advantage of this early and quiet time of the day. I wasn't to meet my group on the Magical Mystery Literary tour with Kathi Diamant until the next day. I headed for the Charles Bridge, named after a former King.  I decided to start my walking tour by crossing this  most popular strolling areas of the city. The early-morning was filled with sunshine and welcome warmth. On the way to the bridge I passed a bakery and smelled the popular cylindrical shaped pastry known as trdelniks. Sold hot with a dusting, of sugar, cinnamon, and nuts, they make a delectable snack. I stopped in the large main square, Staromestské námesti to eat mine with a cup of coffee, while I watched the comings and goings of this busy place, where all of Prague seems to gather. But, back to the bridge, known in Czech as Karluv. This thoroughfare has been the main link between the two banks of the river for over five hundred years.  
The Bakery with the Czech Specialty

This woman is busy making the Trdelniks








Approaching the bridge, I saw it was edged by large Baroque sculptures on either side,  depicting mostly religious allegorical figures.

One if the Charles Bridge Sculptures 
From the bridge, I had a  perfect view of the many historical sites of the city, plus an opportunity to look out over the wide Vltava with its ferries and barges and small tourist boats. 
Walking the Charles Bridge in the morning

Ferries constantly ply the waters of the Vltava
The Venice of Prague 
As I peered over the side of the bridge I saw a small canal between high pastel-colored buildings and was immediately charmed by the "Venice of Prague."  Continuing my walk,  I watched artists setting up their displays of paintings, hand-made jewelry, carvings and portrait drawings.  The quality of their handiwork was high and it was obvious they had been vetted by the city, as one could see their license prominently displayed. As I approached the other side of the bridge I came to several narrow winding streets and enjoyed passing shops, street vendors and also noticed the presence of puppet and marionette stores. I was to learn that marionette theatre has a long tradition in Prague. Since the early years of our marriage, Gary and I have made and collected marionettes, so this had a particular draw for me. My favorite shop was right down the street from my hotel. Who would have known that I would find so many marionettes in Prague? What a delightful encounter. I bought one as a surprise for Gary to add to our collection. You can see the small French character, Pierrot, on the top right in the last photo. I would have loved to purchase the Don Quixote but the price tag was too high. The shop features these handcrafted treasures created by many different local artisans. 
One of my favorites: Don Quixote 

Sweet, aren't they?

These guys made me chuckle as they so well represented the Jewish population of the past in Prague. I wanted to go up and talk to them about my book. 

There's Pierrot, the one I purchased For Gary
on the top far right





In the large open central square,where we left off,   I was amazed at the number of people riding Segways, a popular form of transportation here and definitely being enjoyed by big groups of tourists. I also enjoyed watching the horse and carriages taking people for a spin around the square, while I munched on my trdelnik(funny, it almost sounds like my favorite neck-warming shirt for winter, "turtleneck, doesn't it?)
The coachman was a woman and a funny one at that. I almost jumped aboard but decided it best to wait until I could split the bill. Unfortunately, time did not allow me to get back there for a coach ride. 

This guy's selling Thai Massages- cute costume
but he doesn't look too happy about it!
My first night in Prague I went to a beautiful concert with a string quartet from the Prague Symphony playing Dvorak, Bach, Handel, Chopin and Vivaldi's Four Seasons. The music was fabulous but equally wonderful was the location: the same room where the movie Amadeas was filmed, where Mozart first played. Sadly, I've lost my photo somewhere in cyberspace of the beautiful frescoed ceiling and crystal chandelier. But you'll get the idea from the photo below of the the room---in all its Baroque splendor. It was an evening packed with music for as I walked back to the hotel across Charles Bridge again, musicians were performing there.  






Musicians performing  on the Charles Bridge 
The place where Mozart performed---sorry,
can't remember the name! 

A one-man show on Charles Bridge 
This is the Church of Saint Salvator where
Classical Organ Concerts are performed---
I was just across the street for
the concert with the String Quartet

We can see the room where Mozart performed
from the court yard below---top left 


Walking home in the moonlight---views of the castle 

 I got a good night's sleep and was happy to join my group with our wonderful leader Kathi Diamant, the next morning in the hotel breakfast room. My roommate and I enjoyed a boat tour and walking on the Left Bank of the city through a lovely park where we encountered quite a fun sight. Read more below and see me perched on the shoulders of a Frenchman! That should keep you reading.

One of the many flower draped
pastel residences
seen from the bridge

We came across these giant bronze "crawling babies" by
a contemporary Prague sculptor and then enjoyed watching this
French gymnastic group perform on them. 

This was me just before Jean invited me to join in their fun

Jean, the gymnastic team's leader invited me to climb
up on his shoulders. Oh my, I said, this might be fun! 





Stopping at the bridge after our caper in the
park.
Norma took me by the bridge of locks she had
discovered the day before. Apparently this is
a popular spot for young couples to come to
perhaps to declare their love.

Norma on the deck of the small ferry we took for our hour
long tour of the Vltava

On our first day of the tour, we all met with our guide, Bonita. She and her husband Vadim run a tour guide company in Eastern Europe.With their young daughter and Bonita's parents, all from New York originally,they have lived in their adopted city of Prague for several years. Bonita's specialty is art nouveau and she led us on a remarkable tour through the streets of the Old Town to see the influence of artist Alphonse Mucha and the movement he inspired called Art Nouveau of the late 19th and early 20th century.  
Municipal House,built in 1908-1911 now a glamorous
restaurant, bar and exhibition space. It's architectural
 decoration epitomizes the Art Nouveau style:
curvilinear lines, floral forms, celebration
of electricity with Tiffany light fixtures.
The style used lots of wood, colored glass, tiles
mosaic, all associated with this "applied arts"
aesthetic.

The elegant elevator in the
Municiple house bar 

Another Art Nouveau building, a style made for the new
bourgeoisie coming from the wealth made in Industrial
Revolution---they formed the new leisure class. 

The fancy hotels and
restaurants reflected a backlash
against the ugliness of Industrialization. 



This wave of new building in the Art Nouveau style took place during the presidency of the First Czech Republic, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, whose legacy to this day is very popular. He was President from 1918-1935. His name was removed from public places with the 1948 coup, but now has been returned with a vengeance. I have far too much still to learn about this fascinating country to go on any further about the internal politics. The Czech Republic, formerly Czechoslovakia, is divided into Bohemia in the West and Moravia in the East, first controlled by the Hapsburgs and later by the Russians, now the Second Republic as a result of the Velvet Revolution ignited by playwright Vaclav Havel. We saw a sculpture of Havel's grandfather in the Municipal House and, from photos, Vaclav looked very much like him. I enjoyed reading some of Vaclav Havel's writings before I left on this journey and recommend as one of the 20th century's great thinkers. 


We ended our tour with Bonita at a fun pub for lunch where we met up with Vadim and their darling daughter who was excited about going with her mom to buy her first roller blades.
Vaclav Havel's grandfather






Vadim and Bonita with their daughter . For tours in many
of Europe's cities you can reach them for help at
insightcities.com




Vadim was to lead our afternoon tour of the Castle and Cathedral we kept looking up at from many locations in the city. With Vadim in the lead we learned to ride the underground, the trolleys and whisk through the streets to get up to the big hill on top of which, this grand Castle sat. It's a castle, cathedral and an art museum all rolled into one.
Cathedral and Castle all rolled into one

Magnificent Façade 

The guard kept a straight face---he was cute! 

Beautiful gardens came with the territory

The awesome Nave of the Cathedral





After a wonderful day, several of us went off to see the opera, Mozart's Don Giovanni, at the Prague National Theater, where it premiered on October 29th, 1787. The production, not done in period costumes, as we expected, but in contemporary and stylized costumes with a modern day set, was superb. The three hour long performance kept our rapt attention the whole time and we didn't want it to end. Said Mozart: "Don Juan is written for Prague---more need not be said."
The loges encircled the interior

The Velvet Stage Curtain

Can't one imagine the balconies filled with the 18th century crowds
peering over them at the Opera, straining to hear every note of the
magnificent arias. 
Another interesting Prague sign
The following day we met Judita, our third excellent and knowledgeable Prague guide, a writer and fellow researcher of Dora Diamant with whom Kathi has shared information and research for the past several years. Judita was a joy: she had much knowledge about her city of Prague and in particular about Kafka and Josefov, the old Jewish sector. On this Magical Mystery Literary Tour, our mission was to follow in the footsteps of someone considered one of Europe's most illustrious writers of the 20th century, whose life was cut short at the age of just under 41 years by tuberculosis. We were also following the path of Dora Diamant, Kafka's last love. Our guide Kathi Diamant has the same last name, meaning"diamond."

After years of research and as head of the Kafka Project at San Diego State University in California, Kathi does not think she is related. All of her research has culminated in the publication of her interesting book Kafka's Last Love.

Judita took us to see the home where Kafka spent most his life living with his father and mother and two sisters. He struggled to find his own identity and to leave the strict and overbearing father, a successful Prague merchant and finally came to live in Berlin with Dora shortly after he met her. That's the last leg of the trip, where we visited Steglitz, outside of Berlin, where Kafka spent some of his happiest days with Dora and finally found freedom and creative happiness in spite of his debilitating illness.
Walking in the old Jewish sector, Josefov

 We passed by this dramatic sculpture 

The building Kafka lived in shortly when he was
engaged to be married, a relationship which ended.
He did like this place and talked about it in his writing.

The only sculpture dedicated to Kafka in Prague

A fellow traveler on the left and Kathi examine the sculpture's base

A better view 

The Kafka bookstore

Visiting Kafka's gravesite

Kathi tells the story of how she came to climb a cemetery fence to get to Kafka's grave;
she is one determined and intrepid researcher. 

Kathi explained that it is common for the Jewish people to put stones on graves.
It is only recently that I was told the tradition grew out of the notion that
"stones never die." 

We were nearing the end of our stay in Prague. On my last free afternoon I took the funicular up a huge hill known as The Petrin and its Eiffel Tower look-alike from which I had, after climbing 294 steps, a magnificent view of the city. It took my breath away, the climb as well as the view!
There are beautiful rose gardens at the top of
hill known as The Petrin

The poster advertising the lookout tower built
to commemorate the Jubilee Land Exhibiton in
1891, inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris  

A view of magnificent Prague from a third of the way up the tower

Don't you love the colors

The whole city with the Vltava River twisting and turning through it, laid out before my eyes at 294 steps up on top of the Petrin Tower---Magnificent!  Have I used that word a lot to describe Prague? 

What a wonderful time I had

Time to go down on the funicular

A toast to our tour guides in Prague 





Join me on the next leg of this adventure in Eastern Europe to Krakow, Poland, Berlin and then to Sweden.