I was just interviewed in a half-hour long conversation by Deborah Acosta, a young filmmaker for the NY Times and Facebook on the topic of abortion. Find the video record and comments here:
With the Trump inauguration looming, Mary Jean and I chose to take advantage of the eased travel opportunities to Cuba created by Obama’s opening to that country to make a quick trip to Havana. We fear that our new president might limit or even terminate the convenient flights recently made available by several airlines. It also seemed a good idea to be out of the country on inauguration day. With an Airbnb reservation in hand, we drove over to Fort Lauderdale from Sanibel, boarded a Southwest flight, and in fifty minutes were at Jose Marti airport in Havana.
This proved to be a city of stark contradictions. On the one hand, it seems to be in a state of terminal deterioration. Although some restoration is going on in the city center, most homes and buildings have not been repaired or even painted in decades (a consequence, perhaps, of prohibitions on private ownership that were only eased a few years ago). Many people live in squalid environments. Two photographs document this. First, in the heart of the city the remains of a once-beautiful fountain:
And here, the rear of a deteriorating pre-revolution hotel, with its empty swimming pool:
But if Havana’s physical environment is deteriorating, its human one seems to be vibrant. Although our Airbnb was located in one of the poorest and most racially mixed districts of the city—many would call it a slum—we quickly learned that we were safe walking the streets night and day. Everyone we met—and I mean everyone, from neighbors sitting on their stoops to pedicab drivers or local merchants—were friendly, welcoming, and helpful. People of different races mix and interact as friends. When I asked our Airbnb host why there was no menace or violence in this otherwise very poor neighborhood, he replied that from elementary school on children are taught to respect one another. Bullying, he added, is never permitted. So while the revolution, the blockade and their consequences have diminished Havana’s material wealth, they seem to have enriched its human environment. Here are some photographs of our neighborhood:
Interrupted in their mid-road soccer game, three friends:
During our two days on the ground, we tried to see as much of the city as we could: walking the streets of Old Havana, visiting the leading museums, grabbing a daiquiri at Hemingway’s watering hole, the Floridita, and even taking an extensive open-top bus tour of the city’s outer districts. Here is a succinctly annotated collage of some of the sites we visited.
[NOTE: To those of you planning to visit Cuba, a word of advice. This is a cash economy. We didn’t stay in an upscale hotel, and, despite guidebook claims, we nowhere encountered a willingness to accept credit cards. ATMs do not help (and one swallowed one of my cards). The relatively scarce change agencies (“cadecas”) discount the dollar heavily. My recommendation for now is to change all the money you’ll need for your stay into Euros, and change these as soon as you arrive at the airport cadeca. Be prudent but not worried about having cash. Havana is safe.]
THURSDAY, JANUARY 21
Thursday began with a walk downtown via the Malecon, Havana’s miles-long seafront esplanade and gathering place. Here, a bit out of chronological order, is a snapshot of this thoroughfare taken the following day from our open-air bus:
Downtown some building restorations are underway on the Paseo del Prado, the city’s most elegant thoroughfare:
Here the Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada. This has recently been beautifully restored with assistance from Spain:
Following a walk around the Old Havana neighborhood and lunch, the afternoon was devoted to a search for the family that welcomed Mary Jean to Havana nearly a decade a go when she visited with her wonderful (but now deceased) Canadian colleague Ben Scheck. Mary Jean had no idea of where the family lived or what their family name was, but she did recall that one of the daughters, Alina, taught mathematics at the University of Havana. A cab ride took us to this impressive pre-revolutionary campus:
We were fortunate to locate Alina, who came out of a class session to meet us and tell us where her mother and the family home were located. This quest took us to a gracious neighborhood in the Vedado district, not far from the sea, where we met her sister Alita, and chatted for an hour with both women’s mother, Ada. This energetic 84-year old still teaches English to a roster of classes. She regretted that limited mobility prevents her from traveling to visit family members and grandchildren who now live abroad. This theme of close family members who have left Cuba is one we repeatedly heard, whether from middle-class teachers like Ada or taxi and pedicab drivers. Cubans are proud of family members who have managed to succeed abroad. However, Cuba’s financial and political isolation separates them from loved ones.
Our day ended with an undistinguished meal at a restaurant near our Airbnb hostal. The reminded us of our dinner of the evening before. I mention it here, because it was so much a highlight of stay that we returned to it on the eve of our departure. Café Laurent is a “paladar” or privately owned restaurant. Expanding the food scene well beyond the previous state-run restaurants, paladares have been allowed in just the past few years and are among the best dining places in Cuba. Café Laurent is located on the top (penthouse) floor of what seems to be a private apartment. It afforded sweeping views of the western part of the city and of the sea. My meal, a black rice seafood risotto, was memorable. Here seated just after the restaurant opened, is Mary Jean viewing the setting sun:
FRIDAY, JANUARY 20
Morning encompassed visits to the leading downtown museums. The first of these, the Museum of Bellas Artes stands in two buildings, one celebrating modern and another traditional art. We visited the modern art museum, with its striking building and extraordinary collection of paintings from the nineteen thirties on.
I couldn’t begin to present the many wonderful works displayed, including an entire gallery devoted to the work of Wilfredo Lam, Cuba’s important Picasso-influenced artist (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wifredo_Lam_ ). But here is one (semi-political?) 2003 canvas by Sandra Ramos that caught my eye. Depicting Cuba as a woman, its inscription reads: “The damned circumstance of water everywhere”:
Just beside the Museo de Bellas Artes modern art building is the Museum of the Revolution with its impressive memorial to the Granma, the 60-foot yacht that in November 1956 sailed from Mexico to Cuba’s Oriente province carrying Fidel Castro and 81 other insurgents belonging to the 26th of July movement. (The movement takes its name from the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks on 26 July 1953 that led to Fidel‘s imprisonment, his departure from Cuba, and his return in 1956 on the Granma.) The exhibit thus celebrates the start of the Cuban revolution. Here’s the Granma:
And just beyond a jeep used by Fidel is a delivery truck used by the rebels that was caught in a firefight during the early days of the insurgency:
The actual museum, housed in the nearby presidential palace, is, like its counterpart in Hanoi, an uninspired and dusty collection of revolutionary artifacts that exudes a sense of weariness with the revolution. I suppose that acolytes might thrill to this collection of Che Guevara memorabilia (including his medical tools, pipe and shirt with a 26 of July armband):
I was amused by this wall installation, “The Corner of Cretins,” featuring presidents Reagan and Bush, father and son (but notably not President Obama):
The rest of the morning took us to the newly opened Casa de Africa, with an impressive collection of statuary celebrating various Santería deities and a special exhibition of contemporary Gelede, Yoruba religious and artistic masks. Here’s a powerful statue of Eleggua, the most important of the Santeria orishas (deities):
And here, two modern takes on traditional Yoruba masks by the artist Wabi Dossou. Above is “La Clase,” and below, “Women’s Liberty”:
Our morning concluded with a stop at El Floridita, one of the many bars made famous by Hemingway’s patronage. Nowadays, it’s besieged by bus-tour visitors willing to pay $6 for a daiquiri. Surprisingly, though, the daiquiri was good enough to merit the visit.
Before leaving Old Havana and the Prado area, we took note of the beautifully restored 1950s American cars, many serving as taxis, for which Havana is well known:
Although this living, driving auto museum is one of the most colorful and famous aspects of Havana, we learned from one our taxi drivers that it derives from an unfortunate policy that forbids the sale of new cars in Havana to all but government agencies. This means that existing cars must be maintained and recycled. Our taxi back to the airport, a green restored and repainted 1950 Chevy was powered by a Toyota diesel tractor engine, and sounded every bit like the farm implement it was under the hood.
Following lunch we took an open-topped bus tour of the city and its near suburbs. This took us through some still relatively beautiful neighborhoods and past the elegant Miramar beach resorts and hotels that continue to attract an affluent clientele. Here’s one:
One of the more striking features of Havana today is the continuing emphasis on the cult of leadership with its pantheon of Fidel and Che Guevara. Here, at the Plaza de Revolución a building façade is dedicated to Che. The inscription reads: “Hasta la Victoria Siempre—Always on to Victory.”
Further on, a small government building celebrates Fidel (to the far left) and Hugo Chávez, described in the faint accompanying inscription as “El Mejor Amigo de Cuba—Cuba’s Best Friend.”
These images tell us that Cuba is at a fateful moment. The icons of the past, Fidel, Che, and even Chavez, are gone. We saw not one image of Raul Castro, Fidel’s bother and the charismatically-challenged current president. Will Cuba open itself to change? Will the US continue its willingness to engage? And if change comes will it efface what is so unique and inviting about this land: its open and gentle people?
Hoping that President Trump does not terminate the newly opened relations, we plan to return to Cuba next year in search of answers to these questions.
On May 30, 2015, Dartmouth’s Religion Department hosted a conference celebrating my retirement and that of my colleague Nancy Frankenberry. For that conference, Karen Lebacqz and Stephen R. Palmquist delivered papers examining my writings in the areas of bioethics and philosophy of religion. Karen Lebacqz’s paper, entitled “On Hope and Hard Choices: Ronald M. Green and Bioethics” now appears in the December issue of The Journal of Religious Ethics [Vol. 44, no. 4, (2016), pp. 722-737], where it is followed by the published version of Stephen R. Palmquist’s paper, entitled, “The Paradox of Inwardness in Kant and Kierkegaard: Ronald Green’s Legacy in Philosophy of Religion” [The Journal of Religious Ethics [Vol. 44, no. 4, (2016), pp. 738-751].
My own “Response to Karen Lebacqz and Stephen Palmquist,” delivered at the conference, follows their papers in the journal [The Journal of Religious Ethics [Vol. 44, no. 4, (2016), pp. 752-759]. As an author, I am permitted to share this essay with interested readers. It can be read here: response-to-kl-sp
This afternoon, we were privileged to see the new film DENIAL by Director Mick Jackson (THE BODYGUARD, TEMPLE GRANDIN), starring Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt, Tom Wilkinson, as her barrister, Richard Rampton, Timothy Spall as David Irving, and Andrew Scott as Anthony Julius, Ms. Lipstadt’s solicitor.
I am writing to counter the largely negative reviews of this film. Stephen Holden in the New York Times http://[http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/30/movies/denial-review-rachel-weisz-denial.html says that “The absence of an emotional catharsis in the film . . . leaves a frustrating emptiness at its center.” Writing in The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/sep/12/denial-review-rachel-weisz-holocaust-david-irving-toronto-film-festival Nigel M Smith, among other things describes the film as “a standard issue legal drama with broad stakes and zero nuance.” And Stephanie Merry in the Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/movies/sc-denial-mov-rev-1006-20161006-story.html says the film “may be competent at telling its story, but it’s missing one key ingredient: feeling.”
I could not disagree more. This is a riveting and beautifully done recounting of Deborah Lipstadt’s effort to defend herself against the libel action launched by David Irving whom she described in her 1994 Book Denying the Holocaust as a Hitler defender and Holocaust denier. Emotional scenes abound: Lipstadt’s engagements with her team of lawyers who believed that the center of the case had to be not a proof of the reality of the Holocaust but an attack on Irving’s historiography; Lipstadt’s agonizing encounter with a Holocaust survivor who felt that survivors’ testimony deserved a place in the trial while Lipstadt’s lawyers believed that this would only provide an opening for Irvings’ easy abuse of them as gold diggers; Lipstadt’s final admission that her lawyer’s strategy was wise, though it required her to put her own emotional interest in defending her claims aside.
Having read much of the courtroom testimony (Richard Evans, Lying about Hitler; Robert Jan van Pelt’s, The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial, I’m amazed that the film is able to present so much of the complex testimony. The individual performances, above all that of Weisz, as the courageous but conscientiously conflicted Lipstadt, and Wilkinson as her late night Scotch-sipping but dedicated attorney, are excellent. The editing and cinematography serve the narrative at each moment. This is cinema as it should be. It’s sad when able reviewers fail to see or support that.
At the onset of fall, Mary Jean and I had the good fortune of participating in a Dartmouth Alumni Travel program cruise to the “Islands and Rivieras” of the Mediterranean. Cruise participants included about 15 travelers affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution travel program and 11 Dartmouth alumni and their wives. I served as one of two “study leaders,” the other being Aneta Georgievska-Shine of the University of Maryland. I offered three lectures on “The Mediterranean,” “Christian Sacred Spaces,” and “Sex, Faith and Fratricide in the South of France” (an account of the Albigensian Crusade). Aneta spoke about the art and artists of Provence. The travelers were all intellectually curious and appear to have enjoyed the intellectual content.
On October 6, we arrived early in the morning in Barcelona. While most of the travelers departed for home that day (or for a one day post-cruise tour of the city), Mary Jean and I found our rental car and headed north to Provence. This is the one region of France in which we have never resided, so our plan was to locate a one-month house rental for next year, finding the best village and home. Our three days on the ground in Provence were a special treat.
What follows is a brief narrative of our travels, punctuated by a pictorial record.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 29
Flights arrived at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport where we were met by agents for Gohagan Travels, the firm that manages our trip for Dartmouth. We were then transported to Rome’s port, Civitavecchia, where our ship, the Variety Voyager, waited. (Here are pictures of the ship snapped later on in Marseilles port):
This is a small vessel, with only 36 cabins, affording the possibility of entering ports closed to larger vessels. It also offers the feeling of sailing on a private yacht. I love being on ships (having worked on them all through college summers), and I confess that our luncheons out on the rear deck with the white wake churning the blue Mediterranean behind us was a seafaring highlight for me.
With the Dartmouth group seated together at several tables, dinner was our chance to meet our fellow travelers. The eleven Dartmouth couples included Dartmouth men from the era when Dartmouth was still an all male school (classes represented ranged from 1953 to 1972) ). A special treat: at least one of the travelers, Peter Rufleth ‘72 had been a student of mine during my first years at Dartmouth. Here’s a photo from a few days on with all of us:
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 30
Sailing at 7 pm, we awoke next morning in Porto Cervo on the northeast tip of Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast). One of the attractions of this trip was the opportunity to get to both Sardinia and Corsica, which we had never visited. Guided by the knowledgeable British expat, Robert, we bussed across the rocky and maquis-covered landscape. Maquis is a dense growth of waxy, water-retaining evergreen shrubs and small trees. The next day I would lecture on the historic agricultural poverty of much of the Mediterranean, where scorching summer weather and mountainous terrain have limited farming over the centuries, a reality quite in contrast to the wealthy contemporary beach resorts and pleasure ports that we today associate with the region.
Our destination was one of the many Nuarghic fortresses that dot the Sardinian countryside. These were created by a bronze-age people that populated the island before yielding to the Romans and others. Here’s a view of the site:
We lunched on the ship as it traversed the fifteen miles of the straits of Corsica to Bonifacio on the southern end of that island. Here’s a shot of the massive limestone cliffs that line the shore:
In Bonifacio, we were met by another fine guide, a British expat named Suzanne, who took us on a walking tour of the medieval city. Here are some photos of this fascinating site, to which I would gladly return in the future for a longer stay:
That’s Suzanne in the floppy hat. Note, too, the French signage. We are now in a Department of France. The odd bridging structures below are cisterns that collect scarce rainwater and channel it to storage tanks. High on a cliff top, Bonifacio is a city that has withstood numerous sieges thanks to such clever devices.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 1
Overnight took us to back to the mainland and the port of Livorno, from where the travelers divided into two groups, one bound for Florence, and a second to Pisa and Lucca. This was a hard choice for me since I had been to Florence and Pisa but not Lucca. Nevertheless, Florence, with all its treasures, won out. Here are some snapshots of this delightful return visit.
Florence from across the Arno:
Of course, the beautiful Duomo.
And its dome
Two days later on, I would lecture on Christian Sacred Spaces, discussing the cosmology and theology underlying the many Christian churches and cathedrals we would visit. Time constraints prevented me from mentioning my favorite anecdote about this dome, so let me do so here. The dome’s designer and builder, Brunelleschi, won the commission with a secret plan to build this vast dome without the wood supports (centering) ordinarily used during construction. Challenged by the other contenders as to how he was going to do this, Brunelleschi placed an egg on the table and asked if any of them they could make it stand on end without support. When no one said they could, Brunelleschi smashed the egg’s end on the table, thus standing it up. “That’s not fair,” said one of the contestants. “If we knew that was permissible we could have done it.” To this Brunelleschi replied, “And if you knew how I would build the dome without supports you could have won the job.”
Here’s the baptisty with its bronze “Gates of Paradise” doors, recounting episodes from the Bible.
Even though our guide had pre-purchased tickets, we stood on line for nearly an hour to enter the Accademia museum. But, as always, it was more than worth the wait. Here is an uncompleted Michelangelo Pieta:
And here, the David:
One mark of Michelangelo’s genius is his recognition that to be realistic when seen from below, David’s proportions would have to be skewed from the normal. To lend depth to the pupils of his eyes, they are heart shaped:
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 2, 2016
The following day we awoke in the port of La Spezia. The original plan was to board smaller boats (tenders) to visit several of the five towns of the Cinque Terre that are hard to reach by land. But rough seas ruled that out, so two visits by van (a full day trip that included Portofino and a more limited one to Porto Venere and the Cinque Terre town of Monterosso) were on offer. With a lecture to prepare and limited tolerance for a day in a van, we chose the former.
Our visit began with Porto Venere. Named after Venus, this is an exquisite village with a small but impressive gothic church. Like all the Cinque Terre towns, this is a riot of colors and tall buildings necessitated by the scarcity of square footage. Some photos.
Here a focacceria (pasta) shop displaying its wares as an impressive curtain.
A lovely street-side Madonna:
Saint Peters church:
One of the mercantile specialties of the region is local black marble, striated with beige. The baptismal font of St. Peters is a masterwork of this stone:
Following Porto Venere, we drove to Monterosso, the entry town to the Cinque Terre. This is divided into the Old Town and a modern seaside resort.
The Old Town:
As we were strolling, we came upon a demonstration by a right wing, anti-immigrant Italian party. The poster, “Enough Clandestine (Immigrants)” is a sad illustration of the nativist reaction gripping the world today:
Here the modern town with its beautiful plage:
MONDAY, OCTOBER 3, 2016
This morning we awoke in Nice, France. This of course, is the site of the July 14 Jihadist terrorist truck attack that resulted in the death of 86 people and injured 434. That our cruise numbers are down by a half, from 72 to 36 reflects travelers’ wariness about returning to Nice.
I am proud of those in our group that chose to surmount fear. And Nice is always worth the visit. Having paved over a meager river, Nice now vaunts a lovely park that stretches inland from the sea. Here’s one view:
Our guide took us on a walking tour of Vieux Nice.
One stop was the beautiful Chapelle de Sainte Rita. Zoom in and note the wound on Rita’s forehead, one consequence of her martyrdom.
A food-favorite of Nice are Mediterranean sandwiches known as Pan Bagnat. Here’s a selection:
Nice’s historic wealth is reflected in this early merchant’s home, with a bas-relief of Adam and Eve:
Our tour ends at Nice plage:
Standing on the Quai des États-Unis, we looked westward to the Promenade des Anglais, where the July massacre took place. Our guide remarked that the Promenade was so disturbing for her to visit that she still couldn’t go there.
(I wonder to this day why French authorities did not install heavy barricades to auto or truck entry to the Promenade, knowing that this was a possible site of terrorist attack and that vehicles had already been used in Israel for mass murder. I also wonder why there were no police present at the Bataclan concert hall last November when it was clear that Isis had announced its intention of targeting such “corrupt” Western dance and concert halls.)
Following a luncheon on the Voyager and transfer of location, the ship docked in Monaco. We had visited this tiny kingdom previously, but I was taken back when one of our fellow travelers expressed his disgust at the sheer plutocracy of this 500-acre nation.
Here’s a hilltop view of almost the entirety of the nation, which backs up against mountains that belong to France.
Here, the neo-Byzantine cathedral of Mary Majeure
that houses the tomb of Princess Grace:
(NOTE: I recently had a chance to re-view “High Noon,” the 1952 film starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, directed by Fred Zinnemann, with music by Dmitri Tiomkin. I regard this film, with its deep but non-obvious political import, as one of the very finest, if not the finest film ever made. Grace Kelly as Gary Cooper’s bride (and savior) is magnificent. She earned her renown for this film alone.)
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 4, MARSEILLE AND AIX-EN-PROVENCE
We last saw Marseille in 2010 when, stranded in Tunisia by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano that grounded air travel, we hopped a Tunisian ferry to this Mediterranean port. We have always thought as this as a grubby city, but clearly that’s changing. The port glistens with new skyscrapers and cultural centers (including the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations.). Our afternoon tour made us eager to return.
Morning began with a short bus trip to Aix. This must be one of the most beautiful cities in France. Here’s a modern shopping area:
And here is a lovely rotonde:
Markets line the streets near the center of the city. A collection of chanterelle mushrooms on offer:
And here, cepes:
In my lecture on Christian sacred spaces, I mentioned the dazzling combination of Romanesque and Gothic forms in Aix’s Saint Sauveur cathedral:
At the close of our walking tour, we stopped for coffee in the Café des Deux Garçons. Only later, reading Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, did I learn of the fame of this Aix institution.
Afternoon took us back to Marseilles for a bus tour of the city that culminated in a ride along the seashore, where we stopped briefly in the old port that has recently been graced by this remarkable pavilion, a shelter by Foster and Partners architects (note how it reflects the scene around it):
As we motored along the port, we stopped briefly at this monument to all those from Asia (“The Army of the East”) and North Africa who sacrificed for France, and to those, as well, who fell in Indochina (Vietnam). Marseilles mirrors all of France’s terrible and sometimes ill-considered twentieth century wars, to which this sad and seemingly forgotten monument bears witness.
Our tour ended with a visit to the impressive neo-Romanesque Notre Dame de La Garde basilica that stands on a pinnacle high above the sea.
Here the sweeping view of Marseilles harbor from the basilica:
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 5
During several of Mary Jean’s foreign study programs in Toulouse, we visited Carcassone with students, so this morning’s tour was a bit of déjà vu. Nevertheless, this remains one of the most beautiful historic sites in France, and it has been further improved in terms of museum facilities, restaurants. Carcassone always “vaut le visite.” Some images:
Particularly noteworthy was lunch (along with several fellow travelers) at the Auberge de Dame Carcas which offered one of the best cassoulet casseroles I’ve ever had.
Strolling out of the city, we passed a candy store with some enchanting confections. Here’s a selection:
Some really “sweet” peas:
And here some “giant” strawberries:
After lunch, as we bussed to the Abbey of Fontfroide, I delivered my third lecture. It dealt with the Cathar heresy and the Albigensian crusade. The crusade itself was initiated by the killing of a papal legate from Fontfroide, and Carcassone was one of the first cities besieged by the crusaders. It was thus a privilege to be able to recount the causes and events of a crusade whose landmarks were all around us.
Fontfroide, which to the best of our recollection we have never visited before, is a tranquil reminder of the beauty of medieval monastic architecture. Now in private hands and no longer a religious center, it is remarkably well preserved.
Here’s a stunning window in the abbey church
And here a pieta in carved wood:
The day ended back at the ship with the captain’s dinner. In speaking with our captain, Andreas Siniotis, I mentioned that as a college student I had worked summers on steamships and that my first ship (in 1961) was the S.S. America, which sailed from New York to Southampton, England, Le Havre, France, and back. “That’s fascinating,” said the captain. “The first ship I worked on in 1968 as a junior officer right out of the maritime academy was the S.S. Australis.” He informed me that this was purchased in 1964 by Chandris Lines, a Greek shipping firm, to transport Greek emigrants to Australia. The Australis had been the S.S. America. So the captain and I each took our first cruise on the same vessel. Small world indeed!
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 6
Morning brought arrival at Barcelona where all the travelers went their separate ways. For us it was to a rental car and a drive 500 kilometers up the autoroute to the small village of Saignon in France. Over many years and many of Mary Jean’s foreign study programs, we have resided in most parts of France: Paris, the Loire Valley, Brittany, Lyon, and Toulouse. But we never lived in Provence. Now retired, we hope to spent a month next year renting a home in this region made so famous by Peter Mayle in his hilarious A Year in Provence and other books. Thus, we decided to take advantage of our presence in Europe to survey house rental possibilities before committing ourselves to one town or one residence. Saignon:
Saignon was not our first choice for lodging. Mary Jean has knee problems and this mountaintop village has no level streets. But our first choice, Lourmarin, was hosting a conference on its most famous resident, Albert Camus, and all the hotels were “complets,” so Saignon it had to be.
In fact, as these images show, it was a happy choice, since Saignon is a beautiful mirror of Provence.
During our three-day stay, we reconnoitered surrounding villages, retuning each evening to Saignon. Since it was unwise to drive the winding and steep mountain roads at night after a wine-accompanied meal, we dined each night at the one open restaurant in Saignon, the Comptoir (Counter) of Balthazar. Questioned about the meaning of the restaurant’s name, its owner Michel, a fellow about my age, told us that he bought the restaurant with that name but never understood its meaning. Nevertheless, he and his chef wife clearly understood Provençal cuisine. Our three meals here were one of the highlights of our trip.
And we found our rental: in Lourmarin. With the help of the Office de Tourisme, we found a villa large enough to house us with both children and their families next spring. It is near the center of this charming village, where Albert Camus spent the years just before his tragic auto-accident death at age 47. Here are several views of Lourmarin:
In the course of our visit, we were able to briefly attend a conference devoted to Camus, and we were able to hear a fascinating paper on Camus’ politics
As we drove out of Lourmarin on our way to Saignon, we stopped at a small cemetery where we were able to find Camus’ grave:
Many years ago, Mary Jean and I co-taught a course on “Ethics and Existentialism.” We were reminded that Camus has always been one of our intellectual heroes. You can imagine, therefore, how pleased we were to be able to conclude our trip in a village he so loved. We look forward to our return.
This was the 43rd annual Telluride Film Festival, and (about) our twentieth. Telluride was as beautiful as ever, and, except for an occasional brief sprinkle, the weather was perfect. Film stars abounded, including Tom Hanks who was here to introduce his latest film SULLY, the viewing of which we chose to defer until its screeening in our local cinema.
(Telluride at Dusk)
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 2
Since Kate, one of our traveling companions, had to leave the Festival early, we decided to skip The Feed, a standup food event on Telluride’s Main Street, and dine at the elegant New Sheridan restaurant. This left time for only one film, a late (10 PM) showing of WAKEFIELD. Directed by Robin Swicord, who wrote the screenplay for THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, and starring Bryan Cranston as Wakefield and Jennifer Garner as his wife Diane, the film traces Wakefield’s sudden, surprising and troubling decision to “drop out” of his own life. When his Metro North commuter train from Manhattan is delayed in a power outage, Wakefield chooses not to pick up Diane’s worried calls. Returning home, he secretes himself in a dusty attic above their garage, where for the next nine months he spies on his wife and two daughters as they slowly adjust to his inexplicable disappearance. Based on a New Yorker story by E. L. Doctorow, WAKEFIELD explores the perhaps universal desire to witness our own life as a means of self-understanding and recovery. Garner’s performance as the often-silent object of regard is excellent, but WAKEFIELD frequently drags while presenting its intimate portrait of one man’s emotional and physical descent. In the end this viewer remains puzzled about the nature of Wakefield’s anguish and his cruelly chosen means of renewal. RON’S GRADE: B
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 3
We rose early on Saturday to secure places online for a bound-to-be rushed tribute to actor Casey Affleck followed by a viewing of Affleck’s latest film, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. In retrospect, if it were necessary to rise at 1 AM to see this extraordinary film by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, it would have been worthwhile. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is composed of a multiplicity of crystalline present tense and flashback scenes, which together compose a narrative of overwhelming emotional power. Lee Chandler (Affleck) works in a dead-end job as janitor in a Boston apartment complex. Taciturn and withdrawn, he reveals his deep-lying anger in a series of barroom brawls. When Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies suddenly, leaving behind a will that makes Lee the sole guardian of Joe’s teenage son Patrick (wonderfully played by Lucas Hedges), we begin to see the horrendous tragedy that underlies Lee’s anger and guilt. A meeting on the street between Lee and his ex-wife Randy (also beautifully played by Michelle Williams) exposes griefs so deep that even love cannot assuage. Can parenting Patrick revive Lee’s haunted spirit, or will his despairing utterance, “I can’t beat this,” prove true? In images and story MANCHESTER BY THE SEA gives us an extraordinary portrait of life in twenty-first century New England—and America. But the emotion of this film rests on Affleck’s Academy Award deserving performance. RON’S grade: A+
(Right: Casey Affleck)
Next up was Irish director Aisling Walsh’s MAUDIE. The film traces over thirty years in the life of Maud Lewis (1903-1970), one of Canada’s greatest primitivist painters. Sally Hawkins plays Maud, whom we first meet as a young woman suffering from severe early-onset arthritis. Despite her handicap, Maud nevertheless chooses to leave the care of her nasty guardian-aunt to work for room and board as housekeeper for Everett Lewis (played masterfully by Ethan Hawke), a very poor Nova Scotian fish peddler. Beautiful austere northern coastal landscapes alternate with emotional scenes shot (at director Walsh’s insistence) inside a reconstruction of the twelve foot by twelve foot “house” in which Maud and Everett spent their lives. Everett has a brusque and overbearing nature (early on he tells Maud that in the household hierarchy she stands below the dogs and chickens) but he softens as he comes to appreciate the practical and emotional value of Maud’s presence. This erasing of hierarchy accelerates as Maud exhibits a gift for painting that eases their poverty and that eventually makes her world famous. Sally Hawkins delivers an outstanding performance as an outwardly unattractive disabled woman whose inner charm, beauty, and intelligence show through and grow even as she ages. Hawke never loses his rough demeanor but his mature love and respect for “Maudie” (whom he marries at her insistence as the price for sex) become evident. The scenes of him transporting Maud to town by pushing her in a handcart over the heath and his grief over her death show that a relationship of convenience has become a loving collaboration in the creation of beauty. RON’S GRADE: A
Later this evening we dined at Allred’s Restaurant on the Telluride gondola stop and had the opportunity to thank Ms. Walsh for this wonderful film. Here’s a photo of her.
My day ended on my own with a 9:15 showing of NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER. Israeli director Joseph Cedar’s previous film FOOTNOTE remains one of my all-time Telluride favorites, so my expectations for this, his latest film, were high. Norman, as played by Richard Gere, is an operator with a business card but no office who pretends to know everybody. In this role, he accidentally does a real favor for Michal (very well played by Lior Ashkenazi), an in-and-out of favor Israeli politician who soon and surprisingly rises to the post of prime minister. Norman thus faces new opportunities, but the challenges and commitments that come with them overwhelm him and threaten to once again thrust him to the margin. With Gere as its lead character, this film may well make it to the Cineplexes. It could be that I was tired with the late start, but, despite its informative depiction of how things get done in the world of politics, I found NORMAN’s presentation of its character’s ways to be repetitive and sleep inducing. RON’S GRADE B-
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 4
Sunday began with a tribute to Amy Adams followed by a screening of her latest film, ARRIVAL. The clips of Adams’ career to date revealed her transition from a youthful and innocent beauty (JUNEBUG, 2005) to a tougher mature woman (FIGHTER, 2010). Adams spoke of the changes being a mother have wrought in her life and the role of various directors in helping her avoid becoming identified with a single character-type.
ARRIVAL is the latest film by Denis Villeneuve, whom I regard as one of the finest directors working today. Since making INCENDIES (2010), which is very near the top of my list of favorite films, Villeneuve has transitioned to Hollywood with a series of outstanding genre films (PRISONERS 2013; SICARIO 2015). ARRIVAL is his exploration of the science fiction genre. Based on a story by Ted Chiang, ARRIVAL chronicles the appearance of twelve mammoth alien pods at locations all around the earth. Why are they here? Are they friend or foe? Linguist Dr. Louise Banks (very well played by Adams) is called on to establish communication with the visitors. Scenes of her daughter’s life and death are interwoven with those of her team’s visits inside the pod to the seven-legged alien heptapods. ARRIVAL becomes a fascinating narrative about language and its relation to time. It ends as we begin to unravel the puzzles it presents. We see that flashbacks are not necessarily flashbacks, and that what began as a sci-fi flick is really about the intensity of parenting and motherhood. RON’S GRADE: A
ARRIVAL was followed by GRADUATION, the latest film by Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, whose 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS is a Telluride great. It follows the difficult effort by a dedicated and ethical physician, Romeo (very well played by Adrian Titieni), to ensure that his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) pass her baccalaureate examinations with grades good enough to get her out of the country and into a promised scholarship in England. Romeo and his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) are on the edge of divorce and in despair over their decision, decades before, to return to Romania in the wake of dictator Ceausescu’s ouster. None of their dreams for the renewal of the nation have materialized, rendering their hopes for Eliza’s future both deeply personal as well as parental. But pursuing this new dream leads Romeo into the web of corruption that pervades Romanian society. This threatens to undo everything positive the doctor has accomplished in life. GRADUATION lacks the dramatic tension of 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS’ chilling exploration of the implications of illegal abortion, but it offers a compelling portrayal of the difficulties of middle-class life in contemporary Romania. RON’S GRADE: A-
Next up for us was THINGS TO COME, directed by Mia Hansen-Løve. It explores a seemingly more fortunate example of middle class life, this time in Paris, where we follow Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) a lycée professor of philosophy as she moves between her classroom, her comfortable Paris apartment, and a seaside Brittany summer home. But Nathalie’s life is not without its upsets. Her publisher wants her to agree to “more marketable” editions of her textbooks (or wants to replace them entirely with more trendy texts), her lycée-teacher husband informs her that he is leaving her for a younger women, and students are blocking entrance to her school on the grounds that reforms aimed at raising the retirement age (which disadvantage her generation) will further impede their access to jobs. When her husband departs, Nathalie decides to spend some time in the mountainous Vercors region where a student protégé has joined an intellectual commune whose members debate German philosophy and teach (part time) at the University of Grenoble. But communal life is not for her, “she has been there.” THINGS TO COME reflects the economic and demographic turmoil in contemporary French society as well as the turmoil inside an aging woman who watches her comfortable world unravel. Is there a positive message? Perhaps. Philosophy remains a strong support in her life, as does the arrival of a first grandchild. In many ways, this film mimics the many charming cinematic depictions of middle-class life in France during the “thirty glorious” years of the late twentieth century. But it also perhaps unintentionally undermines those classic depictions, by showing a society whose middle-class confidences have rested on uncertain foundations and now face challenges from all sides. I remain somewhat disturbed that this film repeats the conventions of the past and never quite gets past them. RON’S GRADE: B
My Sunday ended with a late showing of the 1970 made-for-Russian-television movie IT WAS THE MONTH OF MAY by director Marlen Khutsiev (to see what dedicated Communists his parents were, decrypt his first name). This was one of two selections of films by Festival guest director Volker Schlondörff celebrating the Soviet victory in World War II (the other was the East German I WAS NINETEEN).
IT WAS THE MONTH OF MAY begins with several minutes of ear-shattering newsreel footage of the battle of Berlin which then gives way to total silence. It resumes with a high shot of a troop of Russian soldiers in a hayloft awakening from sleep. Peace and victory. We follow the soldiers as they enjoy their bivouac on a German farm, whose pleasant “Bauer” and his buxom, pretty wife are eager to please. On one of their forays into the countryside, however, the troop comes across a vacated concentration camp with all its facilities of torment intact. They return to the farm to find that the Bauer and his wife have fled. The film concludes with graphic concentration camp footage. Marlen’s parents may have been good Marxist-Leninists, but in a coded way IT WAS THE MONTH OF MAY subverts Soviet propaganda by graphically showing that the camps’ inmates were not just “Russians” or “Poles” but Jews. Though this film sometimes drags and is naïve in its evident propaganda, it offers a unique Russian glimpse into the meaning and aftermath of the war. RON’S GRADE: B+ (I wish I had had the time to see the supposedly better made I WAS NINETEEN, a product of the German Babelsberg film city taken over by occupying Russian forces.)
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 5
Our final day began with a tribute to Chilean director Pablo Larraín. Selections from his deeply social-political films (NO, TONY MANERO, THE CLUB) and an interview were followed by clips from the forthcoming JACKIE, his first American-made film that stars Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy.
The tribute was followed by Larraín’s latest film, NERUDA, a semi-fictionalized biopic about Chile’s acclaimed poet, deposed senator, and communist activist. Charged with treason in the wake of the American-inspired anti-communist fever of 1948, the poet goes into hiding. Larraín presents these events through the eyes of a resentful cop (well played by Gael García Bernal) who obsessively pursues the poet. Luis Gnecco had to put on thirty pounds to play the sybaritic writer whom we see at once as both narcissistic and charmingly generous. The Javert-like pursuer, who is presented as possibly being Neruda’s biological brother, is a literary invention embodying the hatred of Neruda felt by his political opponents. NERUDA thus suggests that all our political types and antitypes may be the creation of our literary imagination. Frequent quotes from Neruda’s poems remind us that poetry is sometimes able to move historic events. Fans of Neruda’s poetry may very well appreciate this film, but I found its well-played lead character hard to like. RON’S GRADE: B+
(Left to right, Gael García Bernal, Luis Gnecco, interviewer, and Pablo Larraín)
Our afternoon was spent with UNA starring Rooney Mara, a troubling first-time film by Australian theater director Benedict Andrews that may well make it to the Cineplex. If it does, I predict that it will be controversial. Some knowledgeable viewers will see its cinematic adaptation as a degradation of the play on which it is based (even though the screenplay was written by the playwright, David Harrower). Some will see it as either too harsh or too forgiving of the sexual abuse of minors. I see it as a love story gone awry: two (in this case inappropriate) lovers whose lives are shattered by mistiming and misfortune. Mara’s performance is excellent as are those by Ruby Stokes as the thirteen-year old Una and Ben Mendelsohn as her abuser/lover. UNA shows why we have laws against sex with youngsters even as it tells us that such laws cannot always cope with the complexity of human emotions. RON’S GRADE: A
Our day—and festival—concluded with German director Ade Maren’s TONI ERDMANN. The film was a Cannes award winner and critics’ favorite there—with good reason. It is a constantly funny tour of a father-daughter relationship with many jewel-like scenes that you keep turning over in your mind once the film is over. Ines (Sandra Hüller) is an ambitious and wound up corporate consultant working in Bucharest where her father Winfried (wonderfully played by Peter Simonischek), a divorced, retired German septuagenarian piano teacher, makes an unannounced visit. Dad is an amateur clown, equipped with protruding false teeth, a crazy wig, and a fart cushion. Perceiving Ines to be on a self- and socially destructive trajectory, he assumes the role of Toni Erdmann, an unkempt, snaggletoothed, and totally unqualified executive coach. Intrusive incident by intrusive incident, he goes about deranging Ines’s life. Each incident is hilarious, and little by little Ines begins to recover her youthful mirth and humanism. One high point is a team building party hosted by Ines. After wrestling to don her costly dress, she throws it on the bed, and goes naked to the door, announcing to her shocked visitors that it is a nude event. TONI ERDMANN is a feminist-inspired exploration of modern corporate life and a touching celebration of father-daughter love. RON’S GRADE: A
Each year, we worry that the Festival under the leadership of Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger will not match up to the many years that it was under the direction of Dartmouth’s Bill Pence, and it is true that there have been changes, including a slight turn from world cinema to likely Oscar nominees. But this year, like those before, did not disappoint. Outstanding world cinema was present from MAUDIE to TONI ERDMANN, and the Hollywood offerings we saw, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA and ARRIVAL offered a privileged first glimpse at films that will occupy public attention during the months ahead. We look forward to next year.
April 11, 2016
I wouldn’t ordinarily place a post about a material acquisition among my entries, but this one is different.
Two weeks ago, my 12-year old Volvo died. Or rather, it needed a $3,000 repair. So a decision had to be made. The result was my leasing a new 2016 Chevrolet Volt. So far I’m delighted with this decision. It has been nearly two weeks, and I haven’t bought a drop of gasoline.
Here’s my electric-blue Volt:
This new (NexGen) edition of the Volt gets 53 miles on a full charge. That’s enough for all of our daily driving. Hence, no gas is needed. However, if you drive beyond the 53 miles, its gasoline generator kicks in to power the electric motor and wheels. My Volt has had to do this only once. An oversight at the dealership left it with half a charge when I picked it up. So the generator had to turn on to get me all 40 miles home. This allowed me to see that the changeover to the generator is seamless—and noiseless. The last 15 miles home consumed less than ½ a gallon of the car’s 9.3 gallons of gas. So I still have plenty of range left.
The newspapers are filled with stories about the new, lower-priced Tesla 3. But I am going to state here my belief that all-electric cars are NOT a significant part of the future. An electric car can have very high range. But what do you do when the range is exhausted? “Plug in,” some will say. But where do you plug in on I-95 at 11 PM?
“Well, that’s just a problem right now,” others will reply. “Soon there will be many charging stations.” But imagine the day when there are as many such stations as there are gas pumps. There will still be a charging problem because at the fastest, electric cars require at least three hours to charge. Imagine cars sitting three hours at the current gas pumps? There won’t be any free outlets. Even if you’re lucky enough to find a free charger, how long can you sit in a McDonald’s?
I believe that plug-in hybrids like the Volt ARE the future. Their range is unlimited. If I wished, I could get in my Volt right now and drive to California.
My own Volt receives most of its power from the roof of my home. I’ve chosen not to install the 240 volt fast charge (3.5 hour) system and I’m using just a plain 110 volt outlet. With this, I need 12 hours to charge. Here’s a snapshot of the 5,000 KW solar system we installed last year as part of the “Solarize Wellfleet” initiative.
(I could discuss the economics of this in detail, and I may do so in a future post. Suffice it to say that you get a better returns from such a solar installation than from many current investments.)
Thus, my local transport is powered by the sun. No gasoline; no carbon.
I’ve owned a lot of cars in my life, and I can say that the Volt has very impressive finish and engineering. It handles and drives beautifully. Here’s a view of the instrument panel lit up underway. The green (part of a half circle) on the left is electric charge remaining; the blue on the right is unused gas.
When friends ask, I call it “My Jetsons’ car.”
Over a half a century ago, the U.S. committed to putting a man on the moon in ten years, and we did so. Why can’t we commit right now to a similar 10-year program to put solar panels on every roof in the country and convert our cars, busses and trucks to electricity furnished by the sun? Like President Obama, I regard global climate change as our foremost social challenge today. My experience with the Volt tells me that the technology is here. If we have the will we can meet this challenge.
From February 29 to March 15, 2016 we made a long anticipated trip to Southeast Asia. This included stays in Hanoi, Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Tokyo. This narrative recounts some of the highlights of our trip and offers reflections on things we learned.
To begin, this is a good moment for many parts of Asia. Yes, there are storm clouds. North Korea, the air pollution that comes with rapid development, China’s mercurial stock market. But this part of the globe is at least relatively far from the madness of the Middle East, and its economies are thriving. Here’s a snapshot of a group of Japanese students with whom we shared a flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia (Angkor Wat). Their evident joyfulness captures the upbeat spirit in this part of the world.
Hanoi beckoned because a friend and colleague of Mary Jean’s, Jack Yeager of LSU, is teaching there this term on a Fulbright grant. During the Vietnam War years, Jack learned Vietnamese and is now a renowned specialist in Vietnamese literature. His knowledge of Vietnam eased our adjustment to the city. Here’s a snapshot of Jack who hosted us during our visit.
HANOI. What can one say of this bustling old Imperial capital? First, one notes—one must note—the traffic. This snapshot shows the endless stream of cars, busses and motorbikes—above all motorbikes.
Crossings at traffic lights are scarce and the rules governing them arcane (“right turn on tourist” seems to be one). Crosswalks exist to lure naive pedestrians to their death. Here’s how we were instructed to get across a street: “First make sure there are no busses or cars. They will not stop. Then close your eyes and walk slowly across. The motorbike drivers will dodge around you. But don’t run or they won’t be able to miss you.
Motorbikes are the all purpose means of transport, having replaced the trams of the colonial era. They carry everything from trees:
Because of air pollution, many of the scooterists wear facemasks. As I write, today’s English-language Vietnamese newspaper reports that Hanoi’s air is seven times more hazardous than WHO’s maximum allowable level. In our nine day visit a foggy haze constantly blanketed the city.
Our hotel is located next to the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake, which serves like Central Park in Manhattan to offer a refreshing break from the city’s pace and congestion. Here’s a view of the lake looking northward toward a small island with a temple reached by a colorful red bridge:
At the other end of the lake is a small pagoda
Legend has it that a semi-divine turtle lived here and furnished an ancient emperor with a sword to liberate the city. A stuffed replica of this turtle is found in the temple reached by the red bridge:
A descendant of that turtle who actually dwelled in the lake died recently of old age and there is talk of restocking the lake with a Chinese relative.
Hanoi is the capitol of one of the world’s surviving Communist states, but it’s a free market, small capitalist, entrepreneurial festival. Its streets are lined with small shops, tiny open-air restaurants, including countless “Pho” (pronounced Pha) shops serving hot rice-noodle soup or fried snacks, and individual vendors touting all kinds of wares.
Women, young and old, traverse the streets carrying baskets of goods suspended from their shoulders.
A parenthetical word here about gender. Of course a foreigner cannot easily know the intimate power relationships within families, and there is evidence that as in America women assume a disproportionate share of household and child rearing work. But outwardly, Vietnamese society seems remarkably gender-equal. Women participate in every aspect of society, whether as shop owners or functionaries. Fathers are seen tending children. Women’s dress outfit, the attractive Ao Dai features light skirt-like back and front panels that conceal sensible pants. Here’s a specimen:
There are no veils or mandatory head coverings here as in Riad or Jerusalem. (And while I’m at it let me celebrate the easy availability of beer, wine and pork. This is not a land of taboos.)
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 2
And there is much good food. On the evening of our arrival, we met Jack Yeager and some of his friends for dinner at the Com Viet, a beautifully preserved old townhouse become restaurant. (This place is so esteemed that, as you can see by the photo on the wall, Hillary dined here during one of her state visits.)
Dinner was our introduction to North Vietnamese cuisine, a food tradition that combines the abundance of Southeast Asian agriculture with Chinese and French culinary finesse. Here’s our table, spread with nems (fresh and fried rolls) and diverse stir-fried plates.
THURSDAY MARCH 3
HO CHI MINH MAUSOLEUM
Our first full day on the ground began with a must-do visit to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. If anyone is the father of this nation, it’s Ho Chi Minh. For thirty years he led his nation’s independence struggle against the French, the Japanese, the French again, and then the Americans. I personally regret that I became aware of Ho’s committed lifelong leadership only at the onset of the “American War” in 1965. In a small act of contrition for our own country’s tragic and foolish involvement in Vietnam, we visited Ho’s mausoleum.
The authorities handle the daily influx of thousands of visitors with great aplomb. We joined a line that snaked for nearly half a mile through the compound but took less than an hour to traverse.
Much of the line was populated with school groups. The kids were all similarly outfitted in bright (“Scooterists beware!”) jackets bearing individual school crests on their shoulders.
The mausoleum itself has all the marks of Soviet-era design.
Inside, Ho’s body glows gently under subdued lighting and the line passes quickly by. (Photos are not allowed, but you can find a rather poor picture here: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/ho-chi-minh-mausoleum). I’ve now seen Lenin’s mummified body in Red Square, Chairman Mao’s in Tienanmen Square, and Ho’s here in Hanoi. Catholicism’s love of saints’ relics pales in comparison to these atheistic pilgrimage sites. (In fairness, Ho wanted to be cremated but after his death, the party thought otherwise.)
Just beyond the mausoleum is the compound where Ho lived and worked before his death in 1969 and during (what we call) the Vietnam War. Here’s his office.
Mysteriously, the U.S. never bombed the compound during our merciless pounding of Hanoi. Was our intelligence as lame as the war itself?
THE TEMPLE OF LITERATURE
A short walk from Ho’s compound is the ancestor of all ancestor sites: Hanoi’s Temple of Literature. Dating from the 11th century, this was long a center of Confucian learning for the nation’s elite Mandarin leaders. The complex stretches over several acres, with shrines, pagodas and assembly rooms.
Housed in their own building, these stelae record the names and honors of several centuries worth of outstanding scholars.
In a bid to tradition, newly married couples visit the site for a photo shoot.
(Note each member of the couple’s lovely Ao Dai). And here, near the center of the complex is a shrine to Confucius himself.
I suspect that to understand Vietnam, even its Communist incarnation today, one has to appreciate this long tradition of Mandarin leadership.
FRIDAY MARCH 4
Museums are closed on Fridays, so our main event for the day was a morning cooking class on North Vietnamese cuisine at the Hanoi Cooking Centre. Our instructor, “Eee” (I can’t imagine how he spells this), greeted us at the door to this school-library-restaurant and immediately took us a short walk away to the outdoor market that nourishes the Centre. Here is Eee holding a “Buddha’s Finger” fruit. These are inedible but are used for offerings at Buddhist shrines. As you can see more clearly in the fruit on the table, it does indeed look like a collection of fingers.
The market itself was a flurry of activity, with motorbikes coming and going at high speed down the narrow lanes between the food stalls.
Everything edible, and some things un-edible to us, can be found here. Sausage:
All sorts of rice:
And, yes, roasted dog:
Newly purchased ingredients in hand—not including the appetite-dimming canine offering—we returned to the Cooking Centre.
Our first assignment was to make fresh Vietnamese spring rolls using transparent rice paper. Here, Eee shows how it’s done:
Another dish was banana flower salad, made by taking a banana flower (note the little bananas growing inside)
and thinly slicing across the tubular flower to get this main ingredient of the salad:
I confess that this somewhat chewy concoction was not my favorite dish of the day, so I don’t regret that the Wellfleet General Store—or for that matter anyplace on Cape Cod—doesn’t carry banana flowers.
Our final dish was a stir-fried and then clay-pot-roasted chicken dish, which miraculously turned one small chicken leg into a meal for two. A keynote of Asian cooking is the use of small portions of expensive but savory foods to flavor and supplement the hunger-allaying rice.
We celebrated our morning’s class with a graduation photo and a luncheon at the upstairs restaurant featuring our own creations. This is the third cooking class I’ve taken on Asian travels (I had previously done one in Thailand and in Cambodia), and I heartily recommend this as a way of better understanding local culture.
WOMEN’s MUSEUM. Early afternoon was spent visiting the fascinating Women’s Museum. You’re welcomed into it with this large sculpture said to symbolize the status of Vietnamese women.
She carries the nation’s future in the form of a child on her shoulder, and with her right hand is making a gesture of confidence. The museum’s three floors document, respectively, the lives of women in traditional Vietnamese society, women’s role in the struggle for independence, and contemporary fashion. I skipped the latter but dwelled on the important part played by women in what is here called “the American War,” where 40% of the combatants were women.
One panel displays photos of “Heroic Mothers of Vietnam,” who earned that title by having lost a husband, more than two children, an only child, or their own lives in the struggle. In 2008, more than 50,000 women were awarded this title, some posthumously.
Equally poignant was a display devoted to Dang Thuy Tram, popularly known as the Anne Frank of Vietnam.
She was a 27-year old doctor in 1970 when she died in a firefight while defending her hospital from US attack. Her diary was found on her body by an American intelligence officer, who realizing its value, preserved it for thirty-five years until its publication in 2005. (You can read more about Dang Thuy Tram and her diary here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/diary-of-a-vietcong-doctor-the-anne-frank-of-vietnam-317801.html. As in everything associated with this visit to Hanoi, I feel both contrition for our own country’s terrible role in this conflict, and admiration for the spirit of the Vietnamese people, not least of all its women. Their courage is symbolized in one other item among the exhibits: a facemask worn by female political cadres during meetings in which they sought to rally villagers to the independence cause. These masks were needed to keep their identity from enemy collaborators.
SATURDAY, MARCH 5
Today was spent visiting sites around Hoan Kiem Lake: the still elegant French quarter with its Vuitton and Gucci shops, the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution, the utterly congested shopping quarter above the lake, and a water puppet performance
The Museum of the Revolution had the expected grainy black and white photos of events during the Vietnam War. Two exhibits caught my attention. One is this 1953 photo of Richard Nixon visiting the country (still under French domination).
Nixon, in his role as a cold warrior, prepared the way for so much that followed, which is not to exonerate Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and, again, Nixon or Kissinger for this ill-considered involvement that continues to poison our national political life. (I regard Donald Trump as a late blooming karmic fruit of the divisiveness and class and partisan hatred spawned by this senseless war.)
The other exhibit is a bronze statue of Ho Chi Minh delivering Vietnam’s declaration of independence in Ba Dinh Square, Hanoi (right next to the site now of Ho’s mausoleum) on September 2, 1945.
The declaration almost plagiarizes our own Declaration if Independence and France’s Rights of Man. How different might the history of the late twentieth century be if Roosevelt’s anti-colonialist sentiments had prevailed, and if we had had the good sense to support this nationalist leader from the end of the Japanese occupation?
A difficult photographic environment prevented me from getting worthwhile images of the water puppet show. In any event, in visiting Vietnam, whether here or as we had in Saigon twenty years ago, one must take in one of these shows, where large puppets weighing up to fifteen kilos are manipulated by puppeteers behind a silk screen using long bamboo poles and strings under water. This art form stems from the culture of North Vietnam’s Red River delta region, where rice farmers developed it as seasonal entertainment. (Later this week, we visited Hanoi’s wonderful Ethnology Museum where one can see a full reconstruction of such a puppet theater. Here’s a photo:
And here’s a shot of the interior with a boatload of puppets ready for deployment:
Following the performance, I did manage one decent shot of the puppeteers emerging to take their bows:
SUNDAY, MARCH 6
Today’s destination was Halong Bay, the remarkable formation of small mountains that march across a coastal bays 170 kilometers east of Hanoi in the Gulf of Tonkin. The daylong visit began with a four-hour bus trip to the coast across an agricultural and village landscape. As this photo shows, rice culture predominates:
Since agricultural land is so vital, homes in the small villages or towns we passed reach upwards from small footprints:
Arriving in Halong Bay, we encountered a remarkably well-run operation. Visitors by the hundreds are met by appointed boats:
Lunch aboard was promptly served
You’re taken to a floating platform, where bamboo-bottom boats or kayaks await to let you explore an inlet or two.
Our oarswoman had all the spunk and charm of a Vietnamese lady:
Next stop was a mammoth cave on one of the islands. Here’s one shot of its colorfully illuminated interior:
As we prepared to return to the boat and the long evening drive back to Hanoi, we passed a sign imaging Halong Bay on one of its sunnier days (though I’m not sure whether air pollution any longer permits such a thing.) This gives you an aerial overview of why it is a world-class site:
MONDAY, TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY MARCH 7-9
After a day of travel, Tuesday marked the beginning of a two-day excursion from Hanoi to Siem Reap, Cambodia, and the Angkor Wat temple complex. I had visited here in November 2013 (see my account https://ronaldmgreen.com/category/travel/page/2/) and was so impressed that I promised Mary Jean that I would take her there one day. That day had arrived.
I won’t recount here my previous descriptions of these magnificent temples: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (the Bayon) or the prolifically overgrown Ta Prohm. But here are some up-to-date snapshots of these wonderful structures followed by a few pictures of a return visit to Tonlé Sap lake with its colorful floating fishermen’s villages.
The Bayon (at Angkor Thom):
And Ta Prohm that was used as a setting for the film “Tomb Raider”:
A floating restaurant on Tonlé Sap lake:
And some youngsters frolicking in their watery “front yard.”
We returned to Hanoi on Wednesday night March 9. Sitting on the plane, reading the downloaded latest results of U.S. primary voting on my iPhone, I found myself reflecting on contemporary Siem Reap, the booming urban conglomeration that surrounds the temple complex. I was reminded of another unintended consequence of our intervention in Vietnam and our expanded bombings of Laos and Cambodia: the terrible rise of the Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge regime, during which a fifth of Cambodia’s eight and a half million inhabitants were murdered. One never encounters a guide in Siem Reap old enough to have survived those years without his or her own horror stories. I asked myself, how can one square this gentle Buddhist people who today so warmly welcome foreigners with the Khmer Rouge thugs who murdered and tortured millions? The only answer I can come up with is that the possibilities of good and evil are always resident in human beings and that bad political decisions can turn even gentle people into monsters. Today’s news reports the new electoral triumph of Donald Trump and his egging followers on to violence. Cambodia’s tragic history reminds us that ill-considered political choices can have fateful—and fatal—consequences.
THURSDAY & FRIDAY MARCH 10 AND 11
Our return to Hanoi afforded us two days to see the several museums we missed following our arrival. Front and center on Thursday morning was the outstanding Ethnology Museum. Although the museum has an interesting building with exhibits of the dress, implements and festivals of the many different ethnic groups that compose the Vietnamese nation, its special attraction is a large exterior garden with many reconstructed dwellings of the country’s various ethnicities. I could include here dozens of photos of these buildings’ interior and exteriors, but I’ll leave it to you, my readers, to plan your own visit to this wonderful site. To tempt you, I include shots of only one building, the magnificent Bahnar Communal House from north central Vietnam. As you can see, like many of these buildings, the house is elevated on stilts to protect it from flooding and rot:
Here’s the interior, with its bamboo mat flooring:
And here the vaulting rafters:
As videos within each building show, the construction of these houses is a communal enterprise combining skilled artisanry with the strength of many workers. All the buildings at the museum were constructed on this site by workers from each ethnicity. In its entirety, the Ethnology Museum testifies to the ingenuity and dedication of the various peoples of Vietnam.
HOA LO PRISON
In the afternoon, I weaved my way on my own through Hanoi traffic to the vestiges of the large prison compound that served for decades under the French as a detention center for Vietnamese revolutionaries, and then briefly, from 1965-73 as the prisoner of war camp for U.S. aviators (including Senator John McCain) captured in the bombing of North Vietnam and then dubbed the “The Hanoi Hilton.”
Here’s a photo of the site in its heyday (only the lower left-hand portion remains):
And here a sculptural rendition of how insurgent nationalists under the French were manacled and confined:
Here, a photo of the real people:
Those condemned to death were kept in darkness in tiny cells:
Although laws dictated a months-long appeals process prior to an execution, many insurgents apparently waited only days before meeting this executor of French “justice”:
A set of rooms in the compound housed the American prisoners of war. Although it is reported that some early prisoners were subject to abuse and even torture, after 1969 conditions improved. The accounts offered here by the Vietnamese contrast the destruction visited on the region by American aviators, particularly during the “Christmas bombing” of 1972,
(Bombing of the Hanoi railroad station, December 21, 1972)
with what is described as the relatively privileged existence of the POWs, including opportunities to play chess and volley ball.
It is one of the great ironies of history that one resident of Hoa Lo, Captain Douglas Peterson, a pilot who crashed his Phantom fighter-bomber and was captured in April 1966 (below), returned to Vietnam as the first American ambassador in 1996 (further below).
FRIDAY MARCH 11
Today began with a surprising and pleasant encounter. On our way around the lake to the Museum of Vietnamese History we met a group of students. From left to right, here are Dugan, Lan, Han and Han:
Jack Yeager informs us that these students are often escorted to tourist areas by their teachers in order to practice their English and exchange information about their country with visitors. These four seem to be attending a trade or commerce school, so the chance to sharpen their communication skills is relevant. After learning we were Americans, Dugan volunteered that he and his generation bear no ill will to us, since “we Vietnamese live in the present and future, not the past.” However, it was also added that none of them like the Chinese!
I will not recapitulate the subsequent visit to the Museum of Vietnamese History. Less interesting and less well presented than the Museum of Ethnology, this complex of buildings recounts Vietnam’s unrelieved history of invasions and oppression, from the Mongols and Chinese during the early second millennium up to the French and Americans in the modern period. Vietnam, with its warm climate, rich waterways, and fertile and well-watered lands, is clearly a prize possession. Although its current government is far from perfect, at least the foreigners are out.
TOKYO, MARCH 13 and 14
We ended our trip with a two-day stopover in Tokyo on the way back home. In May 2005, I traveled to Japan to research questions raised by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, visiting both cities as well as Kyoto. But I’ve never been to Tokyo, and this was a chance to do that.
Our stay began with a Sunday morning stroll from our central, Ginza hotel to the imperial palace. Despite the throngs of bus-transported Japanese visitors, it proved to be contain little more than a large flat and bare urban park
bordering a hilltop palace complex that (at least on this Sunday and most other times, it seems) was inaccessible to tourists:
But this unrewarding stroll was more than offset by our afternoon visit to the Edo-Tokyo museum.
Getting there was a challenge, requiring us to navigate the excellent, but complex, Tokyo metro and elevated train system: I hope to return in the future to Tokyo for a longer stay and I look forward to becoming conversant with this clean and efficient mass transport system.
The museum is a modern structure rising on gigantic stilts almost seven stories above an elevated platform.
To enter you take an elevator to the top floor and descend to exhibits on the floors below.
We were extremely fortunate to be greeted by Michie Shigehara, a retired teacher who volunteers here as an English-speaking docent. Her explanation of the exhibits added greatly to our visit. Here she is with Mary Jean. I learned that Ms. Shigehara was born, as I was, in 1942. Thus an interest in history brought together two people born in nations that were then a world apart and at war with one another.
To enter the exhibits, you traverse a partial reconstruction of the huge and beautifully crafted Nihonbashi Bridge.
During the Tokugawa era (1603-1867), Tokyo was known as Edo. Power was exercised by a long line of Shogun warlords, while the emperor was sidelined in Kyoto. This bridge served as entry into an extensive mercantile area which, along with the Shogun’s palace, was the heart of the nascent metropolis. One of the first exhibits is a detailed scale model of the bridge district as it looked in its heyday.
Nearby stands an almost full size replica of a kabuki theater:
And here is a nearly life-sized bronze of one of the Shoguns:
What is most impressive about Tokugawa-era Edo, is the high degree of civilization shown by life in the city. As one of the exhibits states, Edo was an “information city” in which printed books and pictures proliferated, theater flourished, and citizens congregated in public places to share news and gossip. The following are just a brief selection of images of Edo life:
Skilled craftsman, like this woodworker, practiced their trades:
Popular books with text and images were mass-produced:
Schools educated the young:
And exquisite multi-tone woodblock prints were produced and bought:
The commercial side of Edo was equally alive. Here’s a model of a large drygoods emporium in which ladies and men sought out beautiful kimonos:
On the streets, sushi, in its early form as large pieces of vinegar-preserved fish gained popularity:
And off the streets, Tokugawa Edo possessed a full infrastructure for water provision and waste removal. Here is an elegant Edo-era urinal:
The museum continues its exploration of Tokyo’s history well beyond the Tokugawa period with exhibits proceeding through the period of Meiji imperial restoration and modernization in the late nineteenth century and through the tumultuous twentieth century, especially the Second World War era and booming post-war recovery, the period when Japan became a technological wonder. Images and artifacts from the war years evidence the city’s devastation by U.S. incendiary bombing raids in 1944 and 1945. With so much of the older city gone up in flames, there’s really very little history of Tokyo in the form of existing buildings and neighborhoods. Thus, Edo-Tokyo lives on here, in this wonderful museum.
SUNDAY, MARCH 14
This was our last day in Tokyo and the final day of our trip. High on the list was a morning visit to the Tzujiki fish market and sushi brunch at the Daiwa restauant. If sushi has a Mecca, this is it. Here’s a glimpse of corner of the busy market, where very early each morning tuna are auctioned off at astronomical prices to feed the nation’s ravenous hunger for “maguro.”
And here’s the hour-long but well-managed line outside Daiwa:
Here’s the sushi bar inside:
And here’s a closeup of our skilled and kindly older sushi chef. When you’re seated, he asks simply: “Settu?” Since everything is in Japanese, we avoided à la carte ordering and accepted his offer of a “set meal.” Pieces of nigiri sushi are put on your plate as he finishes preparing them.
And what a meal! The Platonic form of sushi. Here’s a shot of my platter mid-meal. That’s tuna on the right and uni, sea urchin, on the left.
Nearly twenty years ago, Mary Jean was hosting an end-of-term dinner for her French teaching colleagues at a Toulouse restaurant. Sushi was not widely known in France in those days, and for some reason I found myself, at one end of the table, explaining it to a curious tablemate. He asked, “And what is your favorite type of sushi?” I quickly replied, “Uni, Oursin de mer.” Sea urchin. “Pourquoi?” he continued. Why do you like sea urchin? “Parce que, lorsque on le mange, c’est comme si on mangeait la mer,” I replied. Because when one eats it, it’s as though you’re eating the sea.” I paused and was astonished to find that all heads at the table were turned my way. At that moment, I better understood what animates the French: food and words.
But then I had not yet eaten uni at Daiwa. If you can imagining experiencing the essence of the briny sea, uni at Daiwa is it. I’m afraid I will never again be satisfied with uni elsewhere.
A CLOSING THOUGHT—ABOUT TOILETS
I’ll end this blog post with a reflection on a very mundane feature of our lives: toilets. On the way to Hanoi, during our stop on Haneda Airport, Tokyo, I witnessed the first of the amazing toilets that populate Japan’s public restrooms, and I sent this picture to an American friend who had alerted me to them.
These wonderful devices do everything: seat lids raise and close automatically, they flush automatically and they have jets of water and air that clean you up at your request. But even more impressive than the toilets are these other devices that are mounted on the walls of each toilet stall:
Can you guess what this is? Answer: It’s a fold-up child seat. The Japanese have solved a problem that we Americans don’t even realize we have. What do you do with your infant while using the toilet? If you leave the baby outside, you risk his or her disappearance. Not a problem in Japan. You just set the child in this seat as you go about your business. I note, too, that these seats are in both men’s and (I’m told) women’s restrooms.
Why do I end on this note? Because I believe that one of the major purposes of travel is to get out of your parochial worldview and see how other people live. Travel not only broadens your horizons, it challenges your assumptions and forces you to understand the limits of your own culture.
This trip did this for me in two ways. First, the stay in Hanoi brought home once again the horrors our own ignorance about Vietnam, both of its history and its people. That ignorance plunged us into the Vietnam conflict. If Americans, and above all our leaders, had understood Vietnam’s long and legitimate struggle for national independence, millions of Vietnamese lives and tens of thousands of American lives could have been spared.
Japan—its toilets, trains and strikingly clean, efficient and courteous society—challenges the smug American assumption that we are an “exceptional” modern nation set off from a backward world. The reality is that there are places in Europe, Asia and elsewhere from which we have a great deal to learn in technical, economic, social, and moral terms. Perhaps if more Americans traveled abroad, we could temper the arrogance that has so damaged our relationships with one another and with the world.
* * * *
SPEAKING BEFORE THE 37TH ZIONIST CONGRESS on October 20th, Bibi Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, said Muhammad Amin al-Husayni, the grand mufti of Jerusalem during WWII, had played a key role in urging Hitler to exterminate the Jews. Netanyahu’s speech has sparked a wave of CONTROVERSY.
By coincidence, Netanyahu’s speech was given at the same time as The Journal of Religious Ethics published an ARTICLE BY MICHAEL SELLS of the University of Chicago rebutting many claims regarding the Grand Mufti’s role in the Holocaust. Following Sells’ article is a RESPONSE by me which develops the ethical implications of this discussion.
Clicking on the words in all-caps will take you to these documents.
Ronald M. Green is the Eunice and Julian Cohen Professor for the Study of Ethics and Human Values Emeritus in the Department of Religion at Dartmouth College. From 1992 to 2011 he served as Director of Dartmouth’s Ethics Institute. In 1998, he was elected president of the Society of Christian Ethics. Professor Green is the author of nine books and over one hundred and sixty articles on philosophical and applied ethics, including business ethics and bioethics. Two of his books, Kierkegaard and Kant: The Hidden Debt (1992) and Kant and Kierkegaard on Time and Eternity (2011), have played a major role in uncovering the depth and extent of Kierkegaard’s relationship to Kant’s philosophy. In 2005, Professor Green was named a Guggenheim Fellow.
For my full CV and selected publications, see: http://religion.dartmouth.edu/people/ronald-michael-green