Travel

The 44th TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 1

Following our drive into Telluride through the literally and figuratively breathtaking mountains of the San Juan National Forest . . .

. . . . we faced our first difficult choice: whether or not to attend the Colorado Avenue opening “feed”? This event is hard to skip, but DARKEST HOUR was being screened in the large Palm Theater just one hour after the start of the food event. Realizing that the line for this film would be long, we headed straight to the Palm, and are still thanking ourselves ourselves for doing so.

Directed by Joe Wright, whose work includes the wonderful ATONEMENT, and with a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, DARKEST HOUR depicts the 20 days in May 1940, when France fell and England’s government, led by the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill, had to decide whether or not to seek peace with Hitler. The Churchill so brilliantly played by Gary Oldman is unlike any you’ve ever seen. I’ve read much about this great man and even published a chapter of a book about leadership on him. Watching Oldman’s Churchill, I felt as though I was privileged to be taken back in time and led to witness the real Churchill in action. Jowly, grouchy, with flares of anger, but sometimes also astonishingly compassionate and reflective, Oldman has given us a Churchill for the ages. His delivery of Churchill’s great speeches gives them new life. Above all, what shines through is Churchill’s uncertainty and doubt about the proper course of action and his resolve and courage in championing his course of resistance in spite of that doubt. The supporting cast of Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, Ronald Pickup as the continuingly weak Neville Chamberlain, Stephen Dillane as the menacing Lord Halifax, and Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s supportive wife Clementine, all give outstanding performances that serve to illuminate Churchill at the center.

Having made the decision to foreground this film in our Festival, we had the good fortune of an opening night Q&A after the film with the producer, director, and most of the lead actors, including Oldman. All were greeted with a standing ovation from the hundreds in the audience. The contrast between the younger, slender Oldman seated before us . . .

. . . and the Oldman we had just witnessed as Churchill was striking. Screenwriter McCarten also helped dispel a concern I had about whether several of the important scenes in the film, most notably one that takes place in the British Underground, have any historical basis. McCarten explained that these historically uncertain scenes were introduced to convey deeper truths about the events, in this case Churchill’s strong connection with the feelings of the English people themselves in contrast to the remoteness of the cowardly leaders of the previous government.

On the way out of the Palm, there was talk among our little knot of theatergoers about how striking it is that DUNKIRK and DARKEST HOUR are both appearing at this time. I offered the thought that both in England and the US, democracy itself is in peril. More than ever, we need reminders that we are here today because of the courage and integrity of previous leaders. I was greeted with “Amens.” Another observation: on the way back to our condo in Mountain Village we shared seats on the gondola with a young family from Arkansas. Their eight-year-old girl and ten-year-old boy both raved about the film. Isn’t it important that in the dark times in which we are now living cinema can give young people familiarity with leaders and followers worthy of respect?

DARKEST HOUR is one of the finest films we’ve seen in twenty-plus years of Telluride attendance. Don’t miss it at the multiplex. RON’S GRADE: A+

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 2

As Mary Jean went off to a film at the nearby Mountain Village Chuck Jones Theater (a Chilean film, A FANTASTIC WOMAN by writer-director Sebastián Lelio), I took the gondola down the mountain to the town’s library, converted for the Festival into a small theater, to see HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD. Director Rüdiger Suchsland’s documentary traces the rise and fall of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945 through the Third Reich’s cinema. Under the control of propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis used film as weapon to marshal followers’ allegiance and also as a dream factory to divert their attention from the regime’s brutal repression and the devastation caused by the war that Hitler started. My oral German is not very strong, so I found it challenging to watch these fascinating films while following Suchsland’s fast-paced narrative in subtitles. Furthermore the drift of that narrative and the ordering of films was not always clear, but the films themselves were fascinating, from an early (1933) black and white propaganda narrative of a working class boy who turns against his “corrupt” Communist family and friends to join the Hitler Youth, to the two extravagant Agfa color films made by director Veit Harlan during the last two years of the war. I had seen one of these (OPFERGANG, “The Great Sacrifice”) some years ago at Telluride. Using the romantic plot of a tragic love triangle, it subtly prepares Germans for the personal sacrifices looming in the wake of the growing losses on the battlefield. The second Harlan film, KOLBERG, is an epic war story employing 10,000 extras that was Goebbels’ call to suicidal resistance in the face of certain defeat. In different ways, these films expose the presence of the regime-long Nazi death cult. RON’S GRADE: A-

Postscript. Somewhat shocking is the appearance of Ingrid Bergman in DIE VIER GESELLEN (“The Four Companions,” 1938) where she plays a young career woman who in good Fascist style gives it all up for marriage: a glimpse into the darker past of our leading anti-Fascist heroine.

Because of long lines and scheduling we were able to get to only one more film today. DOWNSIZING, director Alexander Payne latest film, is a considerable departure from his famous romantic comedy, SIDEWAYS. But it, too, is a love story. In a very near future, a team of Scandinavian scientists announces a technique that allows them to shrink human beings down to three inches in size, a miraculous solution to the problems of overpopulation and environmental damage. Soon, tens of thousands of people, moved less by eco-concerns than the attraction of retirement to luxury after selling their larger assets, are joining “small” communities around the world. Among them are Paul and Audrey Safranek. (Matthew Damon and Kristen Wiig). Paul, a medical-school dropout working as an occupational therapist for Omaha Steaks, dreams of a better life, but his journey into the small world initially proves far less satisfying than he had hoped. Disappointment follows disappointment. Paul’s life is eventually turned around by another small person, Gong Jiang, a Vietnamese immigrant beautifully and often hilariously played by Hong Chau. DOWNSIZING has one clear message: science and technology won’t help us escape our personal and social problems. On the positive side, the film’s images of small people and their small worlds are terrific. On a critical note, I wish that the editors had taken a good pair of scissors to the work. An entire concluding section based in Norway could have gone to the cutting room floor. RON’S GRADE: B+

The film was followed by Q&A with Alexander Payne and Hong Chau present:

  

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 3

Our day began with a tribute to Christian Bale. An excellent retrospective prepared by our Dartmouth friend Chris Robinson revealed the extraordinary range of Bale’s acting. As he explained during the Q&A that followed the clips, Bale has avoided publicity throughout his career, fearful that a celebrity identity would replace the characters he plays. And what a range of characters they are, from Trevor Reznik in THE MACHINIST, a role for which Bale lost 60 pounds, to the pudgy, balding Irving Rosenfeld in AMERICAN HUSTLE. No wonder we don’t know Christian Bale: all we recognize are the extraordinarily diverse and unforgettable characters he has played.

The retrospective and Q&A were followed by the premier of Bale’s latest film, HOSTILES. Tautly directed by Scott Cooper, this wonderful film is an answer to the question, “How do you make a Western today that isn’t racist?” It tracks the long journey in 1892 from New Mexico to Montana of a small contingent of army soldiers led by Captain Joseph Cooper (Christian Bale) who have been ordered to deliver the long imprisoned and dying Chief Yellow Hawk (well played by Wes Studi) to his home territory in Montana. There’s a new spirit about Native Americans in Washington, and Cooper is tasked, against his will, with helping an enemy he has fought against his entire career. The troop soon encounters Rosalie Quaid (very well played by Rosamund Pike), the sole survivor of a ghastly and shocking episode of Indian violence with which the film begins. The contingent traverses breathtaking wildernesses, assaulted at almost every turn by surviving Indian bandits and wrathful white people who cannot comprehend the team’s mission. Both Mrs. Quaid and the chief and his family become deeply affected by Cooper’s stoic integrity as he strives to fulfill his orders. During the preceding Q&A with Leonard Maltin, Bale remarked that as an actor he finds his silences often the most important part of conveying the depth of his character. This was evident in HOSTILES, one of the finest films we’ve seen this Festival. RON’S GRADE: A

Our next film, in mid-afternoon down at the Sheridan Opera House was FOXTROT, directed by writer-director Samuel Maoz (LEBANON). Michael (played by Lior Ashkenazi, last seen as the Israeli premier in NORMAN), is a successful architect whose son, Jonathan, is standing guard at a remote military outpost. After a dramatic opening scene announces the family’s impending struggle with grief, we watch the devastating events unwind. FOXTROT moves about as slowly as the lone camel for which Jonathan’s unit must daily open their crossing gate. But it is this pace that renders FOXTROT an honest portrayal of the human toll taken by fifty years of war and occupation. A neck-wrenching conclusion punctuates the narrative of suffering and guilt experienced by this one family, by Israelis, and by their Arab neighbors. In its implied criticisms of the Israeli army, this film is a striking example of the political independence of Israeli film today. GRADE: A-

Our day concluded with THE INSULT by the American-Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri (THE ATTACK), co-written by Doueiri and Joelle Touma. In the course of an altercation over an out-of-code drainpipe, a Palestinian construction foreman, Yasser (Kamel El Basha), calls Toni (Adel Karam), a Lebanese Christian garage mechanic, a prick. Despite the pleadings of his boss, Yasser refuses to apologize for this grave insult, and is soon provoked to a physical assault after an unappeased Toni hurls racist anti-Palestinian slogans at him. The dispute soon goes to court, where we see a drama unfold that evokes the terrible history of Lebanon’s 1970s civil war. Behind the two men’s curses, blows, and stubbornness lie decades of hatred on both sides spawned in a genocidal conflict and never really resolved. Soon, as partisans on each side pour into the courtroom and the streets, the trial threatens to unleash a new civil war. In the Q&A following the film, Doueiri explained its enigmatic and powerful conclusion. I observed that THE INSULT is a warning to America. Will we allow our emerging tribalisms to grow? Will sparks of verbal assault lead to more violence, as in Charlottesville, and will that violence somehow lead to a second civil war? THE INSULT is a remarkable film for our time. RON’S GRADE: A

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 4

The last day of the Festival began for us with a tribute to cinematographer Ed Lachman, whose credits include everything from DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (1985) to the beautiful recreation of the 1950s in CAROL (2015). In the Q&A Lachman said that the cinematographer is like “another actor” with whom the director must work. He also offered a contrast between the novel with its interiority and cinema with its largely external images. The challenge before the cinematographer, he said, is to evoke interiority through such images.

Director Todd Haynes’ WONDERSTRUCK, which followed, illustrated Lachman’s second point. A tale of two deaf youngsters separated by half a century in time, it’s up to Lachman to convey the inner life of both children by means of what they (and we) are seeing. Images also carry the narrative, with the 1920s Manhattan scenes all shot in black and white and the 1970s ones in brilliant disco colors. WONDERSTUCK’s greatest strength (like CAROL) is the evocation of the tone and values of an era. But a complex and at times wildly improbable plot (based on the novel by Brian Selznick) makes this a less than completely successful cinematic experiment. RON’S GRADE: B

Our afternoon began with THE SHAPE OF WATER, the latest film by director Guillermo del Toro (PAN’S LABYRINTH). It stars Sally Hawkins who carries the film as a very plain Jane whose inner beauty emerges through her deeds (as was true of Hawkins in last year’s outstanding MAUDY, which is just now circulating in US art cinemas). Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning lady working in a threatening 1960s federal research laboratory where she’s called on to clean up the mess after the brutal treatment of a creature captured in the remote waters of South America. This mute creature has been tormented as a “Godless animal” by an obsessive federal agent (menacingly played by Michael Shannon), and his usefulness (and thus his life) is nearing its end. Del Toro brings a Latin American cynicism about American military and political institutions, as Elisa’s championing of the creature becomes a conflict of human compassion against pure, speciesist evil. The creature itself is a remarkable feat of costuming. He wins our hearts —and Elisa’s. THE SHAPE OF WATER is THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON meeting ET, with an added, charming and sexualized romance. Both the film and Hawkins are deservedly heading toward Oscar nominations. RON’S GRADE: A.

Our day—and Festival—ended with FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL. Directed by Matthew Greenhalgh, the film is based on Peter Turner’s memoir of his torrid youthful romance with the Oscar award-winning actress Gloria Grahame. Grahame is movingly played by an Annette Bening, whose beauty and sexual ardor shine through despite her aging skin and the pain from the cancer that will soon kill her. While touring in Liverpool, Grahame’s illness forces her to seek refuge with Turner (well played by Jamie Bell) and his supportive family who reside in a lower middle class Liverpool neighborhood. Flashbacks take us through the couple’s previous torrid romance and their breakup, sacrificially forced by Grahame without telling Turner when she learns of her illness. As the pair is reunited near the end of her life, we see that an intense love can endure despite dramatic differences in age and health. Presenting an unusual take on a May-December relationship, FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL upsets our gender stereotypes in new ways. RON’S GRADE: A-

This year continued the mix of world-cinema and possible Oscar contenders that marks the recent Telluride Film Festival. Though there were many foreign films we had to miss (LOVELESS, TESNOTA and HOSTAGES from RUSSIA, and A MAN OF INTEGRITY from Iran), we saw nine films of undiminished quality. As we walked back to the gondola from the theater, we caught this final view of moonrise over Colorado Avenue.

 

— FIN—

 

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Travel

Three Weeks in Provence (June 20-July 11, 2017)

Thanks to Mary Jean’s career as a professor of French and leader on many Dartmouth foreign study programs, we’ve lived over the years almost everywhere in France: Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Brittany, and the Loire Valley region. But we never lived in Provence, so following our alumni cruise to the French and Italian rivieras last October (https://ronaldmgreen.com/2016/10/17/mediterranean-cruise-and-provence-september-28-to-october-10-2016/), we briefly visited this region to find a house we could occupy for several weeks this summer. Our plan: to rent a house large enough to permit our two children to visit with their children.

We quickly settled on a modest villa near the center of the town of Lourmarin, a village we selected for its beauty and its ties to Albert Camus. Camus spent the last few years of his life here, writing his final, and never entirely finished novel, The First Man (Le Premier Homme). Since Mary Jean and I once taught a course together on “Existentialist Ethics” with a focus on Camus, this was a chance to know the town he loved. We subsequently learned that Lourmarin is recognized as one of “les plus beaux villages de France,” an honor it shares with about one hundred and fifty other designated “beautiful towns” in France.

JUNE 20

Arriving in Lourmarin from Marseilles airport, we rounded a bend on the D943 and there was the village, shimmering in the early summer heat. During our stay temperatures often rose to the nineties, but the low humidity, just 30-40%, made it bearable. Camus suffered from TB throughout his life. Raised in Algiers, he treasured the Mediterranean sunlight, but his illness made him vulnerable to seaside humidity, so sunny, dry Lourmarin was an understandable choice.

In this photo, the house with the single window and arbored terrace just below and to the right of the left-most tower belonged to Camus. It is a repurposed old silk factory, and is still occupied by his daughter. In the distance you can see the lavender-tinged mountains that run east to west and divide our level southern portion of the Luberon region of Provence from the north. This central range of mountains on whose southern plain Lourmarin sits defines the Luberon

 

We arrived at the moment of the equinox celebration. A local band entertains diners at cafes in Lourmarin’s central Place de Fontaine.

Just to the left off the Place de la Fontaine, behind the band, is the Rue du Grand Pré. About halfway up, and off to the left is the Cantonade du Grand Pré, a little cul de sac on which our villa is located.

Below, our Cantonade. The left hand grey-blue door opens to our garage. This is an incredibly tiny space in which to maneuver and back a car, even our tiny rented VW Polo. Nor was our getting in and out aided by the many locals who felt they could just pull into the Cantonade to run an errand!

The villa itself is an odd assembly of different rooms (some gathered from adjacent houses) around a central courtyard. Despite the heat, the arbored terrace was a pleasant place to gather. The many serviceable bedrooms and baths were able to accommodate both of our kids and their families. We delighted in the quiet of our garden retreat just 50 meters from the center of town. Our courtyard:

Here’s our terrace table spread for a luncheon of bread and cheese:

 

JUNE 21

 We spent the days before the arrival of our son Matthew and his family getting to know the town. The following is a walking tour that makes a complete circuit of the town. I hope it reveals Lourmarin’s character,

La Place de La Fontaine on a quiet evening and the fountain itself:

 

Across from the fountain, an employee of our favorite café (spécialité: jambon de Corse) grandstands:

Turning left and further down the street, we see more café culture

A menu features hanger steak in pepper sauce and Dauphinoise potatoes.

Our excellent boulangerie, and the charming boulangère with whom I chatted during my daily visits:

 

Galleries line the streets:

 

And shopping is a Lourmarin given:

 

Just behind the shopping streets, we find a quiet impasse:

Back to the main street and aways on, we come across another fountain:

A cat quenches her thirst at the fountain’s other side:

Just above this corner, we turn onto the Rue Albert Camus:

We struggled to identify the entry to Camus’ house on this street. The townspeople go out of their way to protect Camus’ daughter from tourists, so no one could tell us which house was his, though the web helped. In that spirit, I have effaced the address:

Not far up this street there is a charming plaza with a small gothic church. I couldn’t find anything on the web about the church, but here are several images, including a painting above the altar depicting the visit of the Magi.

 

 

 

 

Beginning to circle back to the center, we enter La Rue Juiverie. We’re left to our imaginations. No placards or history on the web informs us about the Jews who may once have lived here:

But there is ample information about another persecuted minority: the French Protestants (Huguenots). At the far edge of town stands a “temple” that is a vestige of a thriving Protestant community that once constituted the great majority of the residents of Lourmarin (eleven hundred out of thirteen hundred residents). Protestants lived here peacefully before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685. Most of the Huguenots then fled, while others returned following the French revolution to reestablish their community and build this temple. A placard near the entrance traces the difficult history of Protestants in the Luberon:

 

Just beyond the temple on a low hill is the Chateau of Lourmarin, a part-medieval, part-renaissance structure that now houses art exhibitions and other cultural events.

Here it is by day:

And here, in picture taken later on, are both it and the temple at dusk:

Almost completing the circuit we had begun, we come across the town’s verdant soccer field:

Running along its side is one of the more gracious streets in town, the site, too, of parts of the weekly Friday market.

Behind us in the picture above, and just above the street leading back down to the Place de la Fontaine is a large modern square lined with cafes and often filled with small stalls of vendors selling clothing or jewelry.

Finally we circle back to the Place de la Fontaine. Looking back, the shoppers and tourists reveal that Lourmarin is a favorite tourist destination.

JUNE 22-23

Up early with music and noise from the center of town. As part of the equinox festival, a procession of medieval and renaissance actors from the chateau fills Lourmarin’s streets.

Lourmarin is regionally famous for its Friday market that fills several streets near the edge of town. Stands featuring handcrafted products alternate with those offering foodstuffs:

At the other end of town, just off the D943 from which we entered, is the cemetery where Camus is buried. This an old and venerated burial place, cherished by the townspeople and generally off-limits for burials of newcomers. We understand that an exception was made in Camus’ case, not only because he was a world-famous writer, but because he had so integrated himself in Lourmarin’s daily life, relaxing and chatting with locals at the cafes and, as an avid soccer fan, cheering on the teams. Camus once wrote, “Everything I ever knew about ethics, I learned from soccer.” The Lourmainois must have found him a kindred spirit.

 

Beside his grave is that of his wife, Francine.

JUNE 24-25:

By the weekend, our son, Matthew and his wife Melissa, had arrived, driving in with their two children from Paris, the Loire, and Lyon (the last two being places where Matt had lived with us and attended school as a child, so this was a rediscovery voyage for him).

We are staunch believers in the Guide Michelin: above all in the quality of its recommendations and evaluations. To anyone traveling by car in France, I urge crafting one’s itinerary with an eye to the one- and two-star restaurants (there’s also a lesser category of “Bib Gourmand,” indicated in the guide by the icon of the Michelin man, which identifies restaurants of good quality and value). For the more pricey starred restaurants, prix fix luncheon menus are your best bet. On the second evening of Matthew’s visit, we went to the one-starred La Fenière, specializing in gluten-free preparations. Here’s its beautiful garden:

 

And here’s the whole family (except for me, the photographer):

JUNE 26-JULY 3

Our daughter Julie’s flight from Boston was delayed, so the overlap we had planned with both families didn’t work out. Matt’s family was off on the TGV from Marseilles to Paris before Julie’s family arrived.

Our first full day together with Julie, Jarek, Julian and Agniezka included a visit to Aix-en-Provence, the lovely Provençal city we had seen on our autumnal rivieras cruise. I won’t repeat pictures here other than one of Nicolas Froment’s magnificent triptych of Mary in the Burning Bush in Aix’s Saint Sauveur cathedral. Here is Mary, holding baby Jesus, atop the “buissson ardent” revealed to Moses, who looks on, below right.

One website describes the many symbolic motifs in this painting (http://www.theartofpainting.be/AOT-Moses_Bush.htm). Another description sees the thorny bush as a symbol of Mary’s unassailable virginity. I love this painting, but in viewing it, I’m reminded of a remark by my Dartmouth Judaica colleague Susannah Heschel who observed that the Christian church “colonized” the culture of the Jewish people, appropriating the Jews’ symbols and reducing the Jews themselves to the status of serfs in their own cultural “land.” How else can we explain a painting that celebrates the Marianizing of one of the key narratives of the Hebrew Bible?

My surgeon son-in-law Jarek, is also an avid hiker and bicyclist, so the following day was devoted to nature, a hike—a very long 10-kilometer hike—through the hills above the nearby town of Puget. Here is some of the rugged countryside we traversed, with narrow limestone graveled paths to the summits.

A cluster of early grapes at the lovely Château La Verrerie vineyard, whose terrains we transited.

Fortunately, our walk ended back at La Verrerie, and a very welcome tasting of several of their chilled wines. The domaine is owned by the Descours family, which also owns Piper Heidsieck Champagne.

The following day we journeyed westward in two cars about 50 kilometers to the village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. It sits at the source of La Sorgue river, which arises mysteriously and in a great flood from a grotto at the foot of nearby mountains. Numerous small businesses offer the opportunity to canoe and kayak in the river, and the town’s parkings were filled to the bursting point. The river’s flow was used for centuries to power local paper mills. All of these have been rendered obsolescent by modern technologies (like so much French industry), but Fontaine, with an eye to tourism, has converted an old mill into a fascinating paper museum.

Here is La Sorgue, just above the museum-mill. Its source lies in a grotto at the front of the mountain. In 1985, a robot submarine found the bottom of the grotto at a depth of more than 1000 feet.

A wheel powers the old mill:

Here are the large hammers that beat rags to make paper. A camshaft visible just above the hammerheads and powered by the water wheel raises and lowers each hammer for hours on end until the rags turn into a creamy pulp. This is poured on wire frames, pressed and dried to make paper. We learned that in the middle ages, old clothing—collected by rag pickers—was of high value for papermaking.

 On the way back from Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, I stopped to take this picture of a beautiful field of lavender (actually, probably a cheaper, machine-cultivable variant, known as lanvendin, as we learned a few days later):

While Julie and family spent the next few days exploring Provence on their own, Mary Jean and I visited some of our adjacent villages. Here’s a view of the “étang” (pond) that occupies the center of nearby Cucuron. Following that is a photo of a magnificent large home on the edge of that village. All of this attests to the special beauty of Provence.

With Julie’s family’s trip drawing to a close, we decided to spend the afternoon on a visit in the mountains to the Les Agnels lavender distillery. Lavender is a major source of economic activity in Provence, witness the industrial-sized fields shown above. But historically the plant grew on sunny remote hillsides and was harvested by scythe in backbreaking labor by residents of the mountains. Today, the Agnels Distillerie serves as a cooperative. It grows no lavender of its own but processes for a fee all sorts of aromatic plants brought to it by local growers. Batches of plants can run from a few pounds to tons.

Here’s the side of the distillery’s building. Trucks carrying harvested plants arrive above and to the right on the higher side:

Those plants are placed in giant steel casks through which steam passes to extract the aromatic oils (lesser batches are handled by smaller machinery on the ground floor). Each cask can handle up to 6,000 liters (around 1500 gallons) of material:

 

A dried out batch of lavender awaits processing. Our guide explained that the plant comes in three forms: lavender (a smaller plant that thrives above 800 meters altitude), spiked lavender (with a longer stalk and that does well in lower fields), and lavandin (a hybrid of the first two). Lavender is the rarer variety, yielding more subtly scented aromatic oil, but lavandin, as in the cultivated field above, is easier to grow, is used in industrial applications like detergents, and has become a more prevalent crop. It takes approximately 130 kilograms of lavender flowers to distill 1 liter of essential oil.

Inside the distillery stands a working model of the distillation process. In this photo, you can see on the right a glass chamber filled with lavender plants. Beneath it, water boils and steam rises through the plants. The resulting vapor then passes through the condenser coil on the left (surrounded by chilled circulating water), and the condensate containing floral water (bottom) and aromatic oils (top) collects in the beaker at the bottom far left. These oils are the base for perfumes, soaps and other lavender products. The same process we see in this model is what occurs in the 6,000-liter casks above.

In the old days, when there were no trucks to carry the harvested plants to a distillery, distillation was often done fieldside, with a portable cooper still. Here is one in the distillery’s small museum:

Here, its coil:

A scythe used in the old days for harvesting:

And here, the insect-like snout of a modern tractor harvester:

As we emerged from the tour carrying small packages of oil and soap (don’t ask me why), we passed a lavender plant being visited by a butterfly. Lavender (as opposed to lavandin) is grown from seed, so by pollinating the hillside fields, these little insects help keep the industry alive.

JULY 4

With the children gone, we had a last few days to ourselves. Our first foray was five kilometers from Lourmarin to the small town of Ansouis, the second of “le plus beaux villages de France” in our region. Our destination was the restaurant La Closerie. The pictures below evidence the charm of such one-star Michelin restaurants and the quality of their dejeuner (luncheon) offerings.

Their outdoor dining terrace:

Inside:

And here a photogenic starter of cold tomato bisque:

During our meal, an English couple arrived with a graceful whippet dog, which spent the meal on cushion brought by his owners. I was reminded of the wonderful wall sign we saw years ago in a restaurant near Lyon. “S’il vouz plaît. Ne permetez les animaux de manger sur la matériels de la maison.” Not a prohibition on a pet in the restaurant. Just a request to not let Babette eat off the house china. An expression of French humanism.

JULY 5-6:

Our next adventure was a long (210 kilometer each way) trip to Vence to see Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire. Earlier this summer, we visited the Matisse exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which included several objets from the chapel project, so we were interested in seeing the real thing.

Before getting to the chapel, we had lunch in old Vence, and on the way out stopped in the Vence cathedral to see Marc Chagall’s mosaic of Moses being drawn from the water. This Jewish artist, whose Christian (Crucifixion) work is striking, finds no place here for Mary.

The Chapelle du Rosaire is perched on a hillside above Vence. Matisse did its every design detail, from its blue and while tiled roof to the priests’ vestments. Built from 1949-1951, the chapel was meant to serve the students and nuns of the adjacent convent and Catholic school. Matisse undertook the project at the urging of Sister Jacques-Marie, who years before as a nurse had aided the artist during his recovery from an illness and who subsequently became a nun. Here’s a photo in the chapel’s museum of Matisse and Sister Jacques-Marie:

The chapel’s tiled roof and wrought iron crucifix, both designed by Matisse:

A view out to Vence below:

Here are two beautiful examples of chasubles designed by Matisse and displayed in the chapel’s museum:

Although permitted in the museum, photographs are forbidden in the chapel itself. I include here two views of the interior downloaded from the web:

The altar (in the soft brown tones of the Eucharistic host), behind which is a stained glass window and a tiled representation of Saint Dominic, the patron saint of Sister Jacques-Marie’s Dominican order:

Here, with Matisse at its center, is the seating area with its stained glass windows. Half-shown to the rear is a tiled depiction of the ten stations of the cross.

These stained-glass images representing the “tree of life” are in the Mediterranean colors that Matisse loved: blue for the sea and sky, green for vegetation, and yellow for the ever-present Provençal sun. Matisse considered the chapel his supreme life’s work, and he said of it, “Je n’ai pas cherché la beauté, j’ai cherché la vérité,” “I didn’t search for beauty; I searched for truth.” Certainly the chapel’s colors reveal the truth of the light of Provence.

JULY 7

With just a few days remaining to us, with the days growing very warm (mid-nineties), and Michelin stars still twinkling in our eyes, we decided to undertake a “break the bank” luncheon meal at the only two-star Michelin restaurant in our region, Edouard Loubet’s La Bastide de la Compagne. Restaurateur and hotelier Loubet has considerable local notoriety. We learned from a waiter at another of his properties that after a wild boar (sanglier) had ravaged one of Loubet’s vineyards, against the urgings of his family and staff he camped out for five days in the field until the boar reappeared. Shooting it dead, Loubet then made a meal of the unwise and unlucky beast.

La Bastide’s restaurant and guest rooms stand on a hill above the town of Bonnieux, about 10 kilometers up into the mountains from Lourmarin. Here’s the entry:

 

 

 

 

 

Here the garden, replete with lavender:

The dining terrace:

And here, one of the signature dishes, a preparation of rouget (red mullet) with a crisp of beet:

Here a morsel of guinea foul (pintade). Surrounding it are tiny balloons made of fried potato flour:

 

As you can see the portions are small. Rather than quantity, the best French cooking relies on several small courses of outstanding flavor and appearance. Is that why the French remain so (relatively) thin?

Finally, there’s the cheese cart. I hope this photo suggests the abundance of La Bastide’s offerings.

What’s the old joke? “England’s a country with one cheese and five hundred religions, while France is a country with one religion and five hundred cheeses.” I’ll take the French option any day, especially since France’s one religion today is hardly too annoying.

Summing up. Our-three week stay in Provence didn’t permit us the degree of insight into the region—or humor about it—that one finds in writings like Peter Mayle’s wonderful A Year in Provence. But it did persuade us that this is one of the very most beautiful regions of the country: the perfect blend of French landscape and Mediterranean light and culture. We’re grateful that we could round out our geographic knowledge of France with this visit. And at a good moment, too, as the country celebrates the victory of its democratic spirit in the recent elections. In all respects right now, this nation shows itself to be “la belle France.”

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SOUTH TO SERENDIB (India and Sri Lanka, March 24-April 6, 2017)

Near the top of Mary Jean’s and my “bucket list” of travel destinations are Southern India and Sri Lanka. We had both previously traveled to northern and central India, but spice-rich Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka still beckoned.

No such trip was on our agenda. We were planning a month in Provence in June (the one part of France in which we never lived), the kids and grandkids were planning to visit us in the village of Lourmarin where we had rented a house, and this was not the time to get sick traveling in India (as has almost always happened on our previous trips).

Then, in mid-January, an email arrived from Dartmouth’s Alumni Travel Office. “Was I free to serve as the Dartmouth Guest lecturer on a two week cruise around South India and Sri Lanka?” The prospect of shipboard dining free of the risks of Indian food (and a ship’s doctor just in case) made our answer easy. “Delighted,” I replied.

Since I had lectured on Indian religions for years in our introductory course, preparing three lectures was a welcome task. In short order I had one illustrated lecture on “Indian Sacred Geography” (Indian cosmology and its manifestation in sacred spaces, such as temples); a second lecture on “Suffering and Salvation” (time, karma, caste and liberation); and a third in progress illustrating The Ramayana. Here’s a map of the voyage from our cruise brochure):

 

(Reprinted with permission of Criterion Travel. Image By Alexis Vilay © Criterion Travel, Inc.)

A word here about the title of our cruise, “South to Serendib.” Serendib is an early name for Sri Lanka. It derives from a combination of the name of one of the island’s dynasties (the Cheras) and a second term for “island” (dheeb); hence “Cheradeep,” or Serendip. The term “serendipity” was introduced in the 18th century by Horace Walpole (1717-1797) who was inspired to invent it by a Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip,” whose heroes were always making surprising discoveries by accident and sagacity. An appropriate title, I thought, for a surprising trip that we had not planned on.

SATURDAY, MARCH 25

Following a long flight from Boston to Chennai via Frankfurt, we arrived at our hotel, the Taj Coromandel, around three on Saturday morning, giving us a late start the next morning on this pre-program day.

Chennai (formerly named Madras) did not impress. Lacking the grace of Mumbai (Bombay) or the British colonial monuments of Delhi, it appeared by night and day as a jumble of unremarkable buildings on busy, crowded streets. (In fairness, we really got to see little of the city on our brief half-day stay.) We made one foray out of the hotel to pick up nail polish for Mary Jean (forbidden on the plane), but it was a death-defying effort. Crossing the street in front of our hotel involved dodging an endless stream of fast moving autos, buses, and motorized rickshaws. We were lucky to survive the back and forth crossing.

The afternoon ended as the group of guest lecturers met for the first time to finalize our schedule of talks. Michael Golay of MIT would speak on energy issues and sustainability in the global and Asian context. Martha Crenshaw of Stanford would address the issue of terrorism, particularly relevant to Sri Lanka, which was just emerging from its decades-long Tamil Tiger insurgency. Annapurna Garimella, an Indian scholar, would treat artistic and cultural matters in contemporary India from urban design to fashion (at the end of one lecture, Annapurna would show us how to don a sari). Not present for our planning meeting, but arriving in time for our cruise departure was Peter Galbraith, former ambassador to Croatia and the son of John F. Kennedy’s ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith. Particularly fascinating to me were Galbraith’s reminiscences of watching as his father ably negotiated conflicts that roiled Indian-Pakistani relations.

SUNDAY, MARCH 26

As our luggage was loaded on busses, our tour formally began this Sunday morning with the two-hour trip south to the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram. I’d wanted to see this ever since my late and respected Indologist colleague Hans Penner had lectured on it during our years of co-teaching Religion One. The site, a series of impressive stone-carved monuments, and a stone-built temple on the shore of the Bay of Bengal, didn’t disappoint.

Here’s a collection of sculptural experiments: large granitic boulders carved to create animal forms such as Lord Siva’s mount, the bull Nandi, and others hollowed out, reproducing the cave-like forms of some of the earliest Hindu temples.

The Shore Temple itself is a jewel-like edifice dedicated to Siva whose park features an assemblage of many sculptures of Nandi. Note the water in the distance.

 

As we approached the temple I experienced a brief moment of confusion. My impending first lecture on Hindu cosmogony and cosmology would argue that the entrance to a Hindu temple, reflecting Hindu cosmology, ordinarily faces east, the location of dawn, light, and the gods. Yet according to my iPhone compass, the observable opening in the small out-building in the photo above faced due west. But I knew that that outbuilding was a separate structure. Rounding the far side of the building, the side facing east to the Bay of Bengal, I looked up to a blocked portal, the main entrance.

Our day ended as we traveled back to the port just north of Chennai, where our ship, the Island Sky, awaited. Its multinational crew stood by with chilled towels and cold drinks, a welcome refreshment from the warm and humid Tamil Nadu climate. These greetings from an excellent crew after a day’s excursion, and wonderful meals onboard, were always high points of the trip.

MONDAY, MARCH 27

This day was spent at sea, with a plethora of lectures. When planning this schedule, we were all a bit daunted. “Too much?” we asked. But it turned out that the four talks nicely filled an otherwise lazy day at sea. I was particularly fascinated to hear Martha Crenshaw’s brief history and analysis of the Tamil Tiger insurgency, as well as Michael Golay’s contrast of Chinese and Indian energy futures, with his prediction that because of its commitment and technology, China, despite its enormous current pollution problems, may become the world leader in addressing global climate change.

TUESDAY, MARCH 28

We awoke this morning in the northwestern Sri Lankan port of Trincomalee. After breakfast, buses took us inland to the ruins of Polunnarua, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The two and half hour bus ride to the north-central interior of the island took us through a region that had been torn for almost three decades by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers, who fought to create an independent Tamil state. The conflict, which began in 1983 and lasted over 25 years, resulted in the death of an estimated 80,000–100,000 people. In the course of the conflict, the insurgents’ indiscriminate violence led to their being labeled as a terrorist organization, while the government side was accused of conducting a campaign of human rights violations. In 2009, with its top leadership captured or slain, the LTTE surrendered. Since then, tourism, which had virtually come to a halt during the conflict, has slowly begun to recover. Our tour was a small a part of that recovery.

Outside the windows of our bus, there was no sign of the conflict. We drove past modest villages sparsely located along the highway and separated by broad expanses of partially flooded rice fields:

Despite its grievous recent history, what first impresses one about Sri Lanka is the greenness of the landscape. Situated just above the equator (between 6 and 9 degrees north latitude) and reasonably well watered by monsoon rains, the island is intensely verdant. Equally impressive is the cleanliness of the landscape. Although Lanka is a poor nation, (Its per capita GDP at $3,900, which, although twice as large as India’s, is dwarfed by the U.S.’s at $57,000.) it’s amazingly orderly and clean. Roadsides are free of debris, and villages are tidy, a striking contrast with India, whose roadsides are littered with paper, plastic, and garbage (see photo below at April 2). When I asked our guide Latif how he could explain the difference between the two neighboring countries, he replied simply, “Buddhism” and added, “Buddhism teaches cleanliness.” Frankly, I’d never heard that before, but it’s a hypothesis worth pursuing.

Polunnarua is the remains of what was once a major political and religious complex, the capital of the ruling dynasty from the eleventh through thirteenth century. In some cases, brick interior structures are all that remain of what were once magnificent stone-clad temples and stupas. The famed relic of the Buddha’s tooth (his left canine), which, now resides in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, spent one of its stays here as local monarchs sought legitimation through religious symbolism. Here are some images from our visit.

Remains of the Royal Palace:

A beautifully carved entrance stairway to the temple compound:

The remains of one of the temples at the site:

The exterior wall of the stupa (reliquary) that is said to have once contained the Buddha’s tooth:

And the stupa itself:

 

As we prepared to board our bus for the journey to another part of the compound, a local monkey family looked on.

 

A few minutes drive away was the gargantuan stupa of Ronkoth Vehera:

 

And here a series of Buddha sculptures at Gal Vihara . . . .

 

. . . . with the Buddha in his reclining position:

 

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 29

Evening was spent in a fine shipboard meal and then sleep, as the eastern coast of Sri Lanka slipped by. We awoke with the ship docked in Hanbantota, an expansive, well equipped but still almost unused port on the island’s southern coast. The port and nearby international airport were built in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated Hanbantota and killed more than 4500 people in the area and thousands more in Sri Lanka. To build the port and airport, the government drew somewhat controversially on substantial Chinese investment, but its dreams of a major, tax-free transfer zone for east-west commerce have not yet materialized, and our diminutive ship was alone among the largely empty piers.

But Hanbantota is a jumping off place for the remarkable Bundala National Park nature reserve, a 25-square-mile wildlife sanctuary that in 2005 was declared a Man and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. Following a short, 15-kilometer bus ride, we transferred to four-wheel drive vehicles and began a bumpy tour of this vast and pristine marsh with its many species of birds, reptiles, and large mammals. Here, briefly, is a selection of images:

One of the safari vehicles:

A stretch of marsh:

Water buffalo grazing:

A termite mound:

A tiny dragon:

A handsome peacock:

 

 

 

 

 

 

And, as dusk fell, we witnessed the sudden appearance of an elephant:

One of the wonderful things about Sri Lanka is that elephants range free throughout the island. But they face many risks, whether from collisions with motor vehicles or from the wrath of farmers whose crops they threaten. Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) is a major cause of elephant mortality. In two days, as a stop on our way to Kandy, we would visit the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, where a herd of seventy elephants whose mothers were killed or lost is maintained.

THURSDAY, MARCH 30

The short overnight sail took us to Galle on the island’s southwestern tip. Occupied over the centuries in succession by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, Galle bears the marks of each culture. Here, for example, is a scene that could come right out of a small British village:

Here, a Dutch reformed church:

The fort, built by the Portuguese and now a UNESCO World Heritage site, dominates the seafront:

On a promontory a young entrepreneur sells his skill at diving from the high rocks below into the sea:

 

As our day ended, we crossed paths with a group of schoolchildren visiting the fort. Note the boys’ neat white shirts.

Is this another token of Sri Lankans’ commitment to cleanliness (keeping whites clean is hard work in this steamy environment)? More to be noted is Sri Lanka’s adult literacy rate of 93 percent and 90+ percent secondary school attendance. The government furnishes education free for all children. Here, again, the contrast with India is striking. Adult literacy there, although making significant gains in recent years, stands at only 75%. School attendance in India is also dependent on family income, with the result that only about half of boys attend secondary school and even fewer girls do so. So Sri Lanka, despite its recently tortured history, shows that culture and values play a larger role in a nation’s advancement than GDP alone.

FRIDAY, MARCH 31

Morning found us docked in the picturesque harbor of Colombo, the island’s west coast port and largest city. Note the large stupa at the center styled on the casket that holds the Buddha’s tooth:

Our group split in two, one group heading by train to Kandy and the nearby Royal Botanical Garden, the other, which included us, taking busses to Kandy with a stop mid-way at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. There are critics of this facility who believe that too much time is spent showcasing the herd to tourists and too little seeking to return the animals to the wild. But given the dangers posed to Sri Lanka’s elephants by Human-Elephant Conflict, I wonder whether the public education afforded by this facility doesn’t justify its existence. During our visit, a school holiday, scores of schoolchildren were enchanted by their contact with these amazing creatures. These children will shape the future of the island’s free ranging pachyderms (again note the girls’ white outfits):

Here are some photos from our visit.

Feeding time:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An elephant stroll:

Down to the river for a daily bath and shower:

 

After leaving the orphanage, we continued on to Kandy and the Temple of the Tooth. I’ve wanted to see this since Hans Penner described his visit to me many years ago. Following Hans’s visit, however, the temple experienced a terrible episode in 1998 when Tamil insurgents detonated a massive truck bomb at the entrance. The bomb killed sixteen people, including the three attackers and a two-year old infant. Twenty-five people were injured and the temple itself was badly damaged.

Although visitors must pass through a security check at the entrance, none of this history is evident today. A walkway lined with flowering trees leads up to the temple:

Approaching the golden casket that houses the tooth, one can buy flowers to honor the Buddha:

Here worshippers venerate the sage:

The tooth itself is contained in a stupa-like gold casket about six feet high. The casket is kept in a chamber behind this protective tapestry and is displayed only during an annual festival. You can see a depiction of the casket on the tapestry:

Here’s some detail of the temple itself:

At 1600 feet altitude, Kandy is a bit cooler than coastal Sri Lanka, but a day spent in Sri Lankan heat and humidity can be enervating. So we were pleased to end the day with a return to port on board an air-conditioned (but vintage) train. Some images:

 

SATURDAY APRIL 1

Farewell lovely Sri Lanka. We awoke this morning in the Indian harbor of Trivandrum surrounded by colorful fishing boats. The large statue of Jesus was a first sign of the strong Christian presence on this southwestern Indian coast:

Our visit to this city of seven hills would include three sites, the Napier Museum with its extensive collection of Indian religious statuary and artifacts; the Kuthira Malika palace, a maharaja’s edifice fantasy and testimony to the unbridled wealth of indigenous potentates in the pre-colonial era; and an outside glimpse at the Padmanabha Swami Temple, with its mammoth Dravidian-style gopura entrance gate.

As we approached the Napier Museum, we passed a colorful kiosk:

Some flower vendors:

And a striking topiary at the entrance to the museum:

The Napier Museum is a nineteenth confection of British and Asian architecture. No photographs are permitted in the interior, but the outside is itself an objet d’art.

I couldn’t resist this photo of an Indian dog near the entrance to the museum. All such dogs in both Sri Lanka and India seem roughly of the same indistinct breed (though of different colors), and all think nothing of bedding down on the floor of a bus depot, or otherwise busy thoroughfare:

Taking pictures was also forbidden inside the Kuthira Malika Palace, the seat for generations of the Travancore Royal Family. Its wooden construction is famous for multiple horse sculptures reflecting a passion of the monarchs. I confess, too, that the confined spaces and daunting heat and humidity made this a difficult visit. What was impressive was the evidence of the vast wealth of these local rulers and their strong relationships with the British aristocracy. This was a reminder that caste and hierarchy were ideas that didn’t divide but united the British of the Raj and their Indian subjects.

Wealth was on our minds as we emerged from the palace into the short street leading to the Padmanabha Swami Temple. As Westerners, we couldn’t enter its interior precincts, just as lower caste Hindus were once forbidden from doing so. Even today, qualified Hindu visitors like these must don temple garb to enter this sacred site:

The temple entry is guarded, and intruders warded off, by this impressive demon figure, and, as we’ll see, for good reason.

Recently, five of six sealed underground chambers in the temple were broken open by the Indian government and were found to contain an enormous treasure in gold and jewelry: the fruits of centuries of temple donations by dynasties seeking favor from Vishnu, the lord of the temple, and from the rulers that controlled it. Here is a website offering stunning pictures of the treasure found so far. http://www.storypick.com/padmanabhaswamy-temple/

Based on of what has been found to date, the treasure is said to be worth around $18 billion, not counting its antiquity and cultural value. Some believe that when the sixth chamber is opened—it is currently “guarded” by a serpent bas-relief threatening death to trespassers—the total value of the treasure could reach one trillion dollars, making Padmanabha Swami the richest religious edifice in the world. The central Indian government and Kerala government are currently disputing control of this wealth.

Here is the single large gopura (gate) of the temple itself.

 

SUNDAY APRIL 2:

With a close friend whose family emigrated from Kerala, and having read many accounts over the years of this unique state of India, I had long wanted to visit.

Kerala is known for its religious diversity (about twenty percent of its citizens are Christians, who date their community from a founding visit in the first century by the apostle Thomas). For over fifty years, it was ruled by a local version of the Communist party (which lost power to the Congress Party in 2011), and the state’s social progressiveness is reflected in its 94% adult literacy rate. Our brief visit to the state’s largest city, Kochi (previous name “Cochin”) and its environs did not disappoint. Arriving overnight, we docked at a mammoth port facility, and in the morning bussed into the Jewish sector of the city. “The Jews of Cochin” are also an ancient community, claiming a presence in India since the time of King Solomon. Others date their presence from the twelfth century, and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries following the expulsion from Spain, there was also an infusion into Cochin of Ladino-speaking Jews.

Sadly, little of this remains. “Jewtown,” as it is unashamedly called, features shops selling Jewish-themed trinkets. But with most of the Cochin Jews having emigrated to Israel, only a handful of Jews remain. These must join with the small number of others in the city and suburbs for occasional religious services in the Pardesi (“foreigners”) Synagogue. We were able to purchase a yarmulke and challah cover (for my sister and brother-in-law) that were handmade by a ninety year old Jewish woman whom we glimpsed through a window reading a religious text—one of the last of the Cochin Jews.

Some images of Jewtown:

Afternoon was an adventure to which I had long looked forward, a houseboat cruise through Kerala’s many interconnecting waterways and lakes. A one-and-half hour bus ride 55 kilometers south of Kochi took us past the usual array of colorful Indian sites. Here are some images from the bus of a temple festival underway:

A temple cart:

Arriving near the city of Alappuzha, we boarded our houseboat. Steered by a wiry helmsman, we joined the many other boats plying the waterways

 

The streams, canals, and lakes of Kerala are major centers of residential and commercial activity. Some of the commerce has waned but is being partly replaced by this large houseboat industry. Here are some images of our tour:

Boys bathing in the canal beside their home:

At one point, our houseboat (and the others in our party) pulled up along the side of a canal to give us a closer look at the village culture that lines the waterways.

It’s for good reason that India in general (and its south in particular) is regarded as the land of spices, since almost every savory plant flourishes here. As we walked, we could see spices drying:

Pepper growing (during the middle ages, this valuable Indian export cost more than salt and was sometimes used in food preservation):

A canalside house:

Maybe this is the moment to mention the dirt of India. Passing by this dwelling, I noted this open sewer. It’s estimated that 50 percent of Indians (mostly rural people) lack indoor toilets and just use fields, lots, or shorelines to do their business. Prime Minister Modi has initiated a “clean India” drive to spur the installation of indoor toilets, but according to one of our guides, this effort has been slowed by underfunding and corruption.

Contrast this with the beauty of India. On a nearby footpath, a group of friendly ladies in saris wave hello:

Further along, at the dock where we were picked up, a Communist flag waves proudly.

 

Having mentioned dirt above, here’s a photo snapped from the bus on our return. It’s a typical roadside in Kerala. The contrast with clean Sri Lanka couldn’t be more evident:

MONDAY, APRIL 3

We remained in Kochi this morning, visiting sites we had missed the day before, including these fisherman who utilize cantilevered nets to pull fish out of the sea:

Large stones provide counterbalance and permit the men to pull the catch-laden nets from the water:

Here’s the result of a morning’s work:

Following a visit to the interior of the Pardesi Synagogue (photography forbidden) we returned to the ship and departed for the start of a long run up India’s western coast that would eventually take us to Mumbai (which apparently everyone still prefers to call “Bombay”).

TUESDAY APRIL 4

Morning found us in Mangalore, where a bus tour took us inland first to Moodabidri and the thousand-pillared 15th-century Jain Saavira Kambada temple. . . .

. . . . and following that to nearby Karkala and the mammoth statue of Bahubali, a Jain adept and liberated soul (siddha) who escaped the stream of karmicly determined death and rebirth (samsara). Standing high on a hill overlooking the surrounding landscape, this tenth century monolith, 57 feet high and carved from a single block, is one of the largest freestanding statues in the world. Legend has it that Bahubali stood erect and unmoving in meditation for one year before attaining liberation, during which time vines grew his legs, as you can see on the statue:

Before returning to the ship, we had a buffet lunch at Soans Farm, an innovative agricultural plantation that has successfully introduced new varieties of pineapples and other tropical plants into the region.

WEDNESDAY APRIL 5

We awoke this morning docked in the harbor at Goa, a former Portuguese possession for hundreds of years that remained an overseas province of Portugal as late as 1974. Since we had a good stretch of Indian ocean to transit before reaching Mumbai, this stop was short: a 7AM departure for a three-hour visit that included a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Basilica of Bom Jesus, containing the casket of St. Francis Xavier, and then a visit to the State Archaeological Museum. But awakening somewhat tired and with a lecture to complete, I decided to skip this tour. That afternoon, I enjoyed delivering my illustrated lecture on the Ramayana. As Diana Eck argues in her India: A Sacred Geography, Rama’s travels mark off many of the sacred sites of the Indian subcontinent, recapitulating in reverse some of our trip. So it was a treat to be able to introduce the travelers to this wonderful story of Rama’s loss of his beloved wife Sita and his struggle to recover her with the help of his brother Lakshmana and the wily trickster Hanuman.

THURSDAY, APRIL 6

Today, we’ve arrived at Mumbai and the end of our journey (though some travelers would go on to a post-trip excursion to Ajanta-Ellora, which I had visited years ago with my then teenage son, Matthew). Travelers would depart our bus tour in waves throughout the day, but we had much of the morning together to visit sites around the city.

Here we are aboard the bus, proceeding along the city’s attractive shoreline.

En route, we paused briefly beside the Taj Hotel. Here’s the old part of the hotel:

And here its modern tower:

The Taj first opened in 1903. Popular accounts (not entirely reliable) have it that Jamsetji Tata, founder of the great Tata industrial empire, decided to build the hotel after he was refused entry to one of the city’s grand hotels that was restricted to “whites only.” Tragically, in 2008 terrorists arriving in small boats staged a bloody attack and occupation of the hotel. Indian authorities, our guide opined, were slow in responding, and the attack ended with the deaths of 164 victims.

Our next stop was the Crawford Market, a rambling assemblage of food vendors in a series of buildings, some of which are now undergoing renovation.

Here’s a newer part of the market:

No need for a shopping cart. On entering the market, you can hire one of these fellows to carry your purchases:

A beautiful basket of acid limes, a variety I had never seen before:

Equally unusual and attractive melons:

A pluck of chickens:

A merchant amidst his wares:

India’s (and much of Southeast Asia’s) favorite mood-enhancing drug is betel. Here in a corner of the market a vendor prepares the stimulant by wrapping ground Areca palm nut in a betel vine leaf that has been coated with lime. Chewing this turns the user’s mouth and teeth a red color, as it does the floor or sidewalk when the used-up mixture is spit out.

 

Leaving the market, our next stop was a modest museum-library dedicated to the life and thought of Mahatma Gandhi. A nicely done bas-relief adorned the entrance:

The interior walls were lined with framed quotations from the Mahatma. This one struck me as particularly wise:

 

A room on the top floor of the museum offered a re-creation of Gandhi’s quarters in his ashram near Ahmedabad. Spinning wheels symbolizing his call for a return to Indian economic self-reliance and indigenous craftsmanship line the wall:

Our next stop took us to the rail station to watch dabbawalas perform their miracles. This core of workers distributes over 130,000 lunchboxes every working day throughout Mumbai. The insulated boxes are filled in the morning by the worker’s wife, delivered by suburban rail, picked up by the dabbawalas, delivered to the worker’s office, re-collected after lunch, and returned home by rail. These feats of organization and near perfect efficiency on the part of semi-literate workers have drawn the attention of the Harvard Business Review (https://hbr.org/2012/11/mumbais-models-of-service-excellence) and were celebrated in the 2013 film THE LUNCHBOX.

A collection of lunchboxes just arrived by train:

A dabbawala carrying lunchboxes to the waiting bicycle-mounted deliverymen:

Our own lunch was at an excellent Indian restaurant. After that, busses dropped us at an elegant near-airport hotel, where the travelers could spend the latter part of the day awaiting the evening departure of most of our flights.

To conclude, I must say that this trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There was no way, traveling on our own, that we could have seen all the destinations that we did. The local guides throughout and the excursions were terrific. With our two bus tours to the interior and circumnavigation of Sri Lanka, I feel we had an extraordinary introduction to this beautiful island nation. I’d like to go back. And in our stops in Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, in particular, we deepened our understanding of the Indian subcontinent. Our fellow travelers, including alumni of Harvard, Stanford, MIT and Dartmouth, were wonderful conversation partners and responders to our lectures.

While traveling I had a chance to read Jene Drèze and Amartya Sen’s 2013 book, An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions. Drèze and Sen note India’s astonishing recent economic growth (7% per year), but its lingering problems of illiteracy, inequality, and sexism. They contrast India with Bangladesh, which, with half the GDP, has made better progress in education and the inclusion of women in society. For me, this trip confirmed their general finding. India is an emerging giant on the world stage and still one of the most remarkable cultures in the world. It is always worth the visit. But to advance further, India will have to follow the lead of its tiny neighbor Sri Lanka in creating a clean and sustainable environment, educating its citizens, and affording all of them, regardless of sex, caste, or income, greater equality of opportunity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Havana, Cuba—January 18-21, 2017

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:

0130-broken-fountain

And here, the rear of a deteriorating pre-revolution hotel, with its empty swimming pool:

0095-havana-libre-from-laurent

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:

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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:

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Downtown some building restorations are underway on the Paseo del Prado, the city’s most elegant thoroughfare:

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Here the Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada. This has recently been beautifully restored with assistance from Spain:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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”:

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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:

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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:

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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):

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I was amused by this wall installation, “The Corner of Cretins,” featuring presidents Reagan and Bush, father and son (but notably not President Obama):

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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):

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And here, two modern takes on traditional Yoruba masks by the artist Wabi Dossou. Above is “La Clase,” and below, “Women’s Liberty”:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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Travel

Mediterranean Cruise—and Provence, September 28 to October 10, 2016

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):

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

 

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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:

 

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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.

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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:

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Of course, the beautiful Duomo.

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And its dome

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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.

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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:

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And here, the David:

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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:

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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.

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Here a focacceria (pasta) shop displaying its wares as an impressive curtain.

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A lovely street-side Madonna:

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Saint Peters church:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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Here the modern town with its beautiful plage:

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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:

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Our guide took us on a walking tour of Vieux Nice.

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One stop was the beautiful Chapelle de Sainte Rita. Zoom in and note the wound on Rita’s forehead, one consequence of her martyrdom.

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A food-favorite of Nice are Mediterranean sandwiches known as Pan Bagnat. Here’s a selection:

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Nice’s historic wealth is reflected in this early merchant’s home, with a bas-relief of Adam and Eve:

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Our tour ends at Nice plage:

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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.

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(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.

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Here, the neo-Byzantine cathedral of Mary Majeure

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that houses the tomb of Princess Grace:

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(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:

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And here is a lovely rotonde:

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Markets line the streets near the center of the city. A collection of chanterelle mushrooms on offer:

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And here, cepes:

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In my lecture on Christian sacred spaces, I mentioned the dazzling combination of Romanesque and Gothic forms in Aix’s Saint Sauveur cathedral:

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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.

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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):

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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.

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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.

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Here the sweeping view of Marseilles harbor from the basilica:

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And inside:

 

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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:

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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:

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Some really “sweet” peas:

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And here some “giant” strawberries:

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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.

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Here’s a stunning window in the abbey church

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And here a pieta in carved wood:

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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

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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:

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Travel, Uncategorized

The 43rd TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL

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.

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(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+

02-affleck

(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.

03s-aisling-walsh

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.

04-amy-adams

(Amy Adams)

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+

05-larrain-et-al

(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.

 

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Travel

TWO WEEKS IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

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.

001 Japanese Kids

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.

Jack

 

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.

 

Scooters

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:

001 Tree Scooter

to families

Whole Families

to dogs

Dog

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:

Lake

At the other end of the lake is a small pagoda

 

182 Turtle 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:

Turtle

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.

Store Fronts

 

Food

 

Vendors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Women, young and old, traverse the streets carrying baskets of goods suspended from their shoulders.

 

Woman Carrying Goods

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:

Ao Dai

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.)

006a Dinner at Com Viet with HillaryJPG

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.

005Dinner Table at Com VietJPG

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.

 

006 Mausoleum_4060

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.

09 Schoolchilldren

The mausoleum itself has all the marks of Soviet-era design.

08 Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

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.

024 Ho Chi Minh's Workplace

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.

040 Temple of Literature

Housed in their own building, these stelae record the names and honors of several centuries worth of outstanding scholars.

054 Doctors' Stellae

In a bid to tradition, newly married couples visit the site for a photo shoot.

037 Married Couple

(Note each member of the couple’s lovely Ao Dai). And here, near the center of the complex is a shrine to Confucius himself.

072 Confucius

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.

 

092 Our chef-teacher Eee

The market itself was a flurry of activity, with motorbikes coming and going at high speed down the narrow lanes between the food stalls.

105 Market

Everything edible, and some things un-edible to us, can be found here. Sausage:

107 Market Sausage

All sorts of rice:

107a Rice

Fresh tofu:

114 Tofu

Eggs:

119 Egg Lady

And, yes, roasted dog:

108 Dog

Newly purchased ingredients in hand—not including the appetite-dimming canine offering—we returned to the Cooking Centre.

132 Classroom Kitchen

Our first assignment was to make fresh Vietnamese spring rolls using transparent rice paper. Here, Eee shows how it’s done:


   148 Nem

  150 Nem

152 Nem

Another dish was banana flower salad, made by taking a banana flower (note the little bananas growing inside)

144 Bananna Flowers

and thinly slicing across the tubular flower to get this main ingredient of the salad:

146 Bananna Flower 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.

142 In Class

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

158 Women's Museum

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.

162 Heroic Mothers

Equally poignant was a display devoted to Dang Thuy Tram, popularly known as the Anne Frank of Vietnam.

161 Dang Thuy Tram

 

161a Dang Thuy Tram Book

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.

166 Protective Mask

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).

188 Nixon Visit 11-1953

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.

186 Ho Chi Minh 9-2-45

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:

330 Puppet Theater

And here’s a shot of the interior with a boatload of puppets ready for deployment:

332 Interior Puppets

Following the performance, I did manage one decent shot of the puppeteers emerging to take their bows:

192 Puppeteers

 

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:

195 Countryside

Since agricultural land is so vital, homes in the small villages or towns we passed reach upwards from small footprints:

198 Countryside

Arriving in Halong Bay, we encountered a remarkably well-run operation. Visitors by the hundreds are met by appointed boats:

200 Departure Ha Long Bay  201 Boats on Bay

Lunch aboard was promptly served

 

202 Lunch Onboard

You’re taken to a floating platform, where bamboo-bottom boats or kayaks await to let you explore an inlet or two.

206 Small Boatas   208 Small Boatas

210 Small Boatas

Our oarswoman had all the spunk and charm of a Vietnamese lady:

216 Our Oarswoman

Next stop was a mammoth cave on one of the islands. Here’s one shot of its colorfully illuminated interior:

232 Cave 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:

238 Sunny Ha Long Bay Poster

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.

Angkor Wat:

250 Angor Wat

The Bayon (at Angkor Thom):

 

266 Bayon

 

And Ta Prohm that was used as a setting for the film “Tomb Raider”:

 

 

284 Ta Prohm

A floating restaurant on Tonlé Sap lake:

310 Lake Restaurant

And some youngsters frolicking in their watery “front yard.”

296 Kids Tonle Sap

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:

334 Bahnar Communcal House

Here’s the interior, with its bamboo mat flooring:

336 Bahnar Interior

And here the vaulting rafters:

338 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):

346 Prison Entire

And here a sculptural rendition of how insurgent nationalists under the French were manacled and confined:

342 Prisoners

Here, a photo of the real people:

344 Prisoners

Those condemned to death were kept in darkness in tiny cells:

350 Condemned Man

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”:

348 Guillotine

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,

352 Destruction

(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).

354 Peterson

 

356 Ambassador Peterson

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:

 

360 Students

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

400 Palace Grounds

bordering a hilltop palace complex that (at least on this Sunday and most other times, it seems) was inaccessible to tourists:

402 Palace Grounds

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.

403 Metro

 

404 Metro

The museum is a modern structure rising on gigantic stilts almost seven stories above an elevated platform.

406 Edo-Tokyo Museum

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.

410 With Docent Michie Shigehara

To enter the exhibits, you traverse a partial reconstruction of the huge and beautifully crafted Nihonbashi Bridge.

412 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.

416 Nihonbashi Model

 

418 Nihonbashi Model

 

420 Nihonbashi Model

Nearby stands an almost full size replica of a kabuki theater:

414 Kabuki Theater

And here is a nearly life-sized bronze of one of the Shoguns:

424 Shogun

 

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:

428 Sashimono Wood Joinery

Theater flourished:

432 Theater Arts

Popular books with text and images were mass-produced:

433 Books

Schools educated the young:

434 School

And exquisite multi-tone woodblock prints were produced and bought:

436 Woodblock Prints

437 Woodblock Prints

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:

440 Drygoods Store

442 Drygoods Storre

On the streets, sushi, in its early form as large pieces of vinegar-preserved fish gained popularity:

448 Sushi Vendor Cart

And off the streets, Tokugawa Edo possessed a full infrastructure for water provision and waste removal. Here is an elegant Edo-era urinal:

449 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.”

451 Tsukiji Market

And here’s the hour-long but well-managed line outside Daiwa:

452 Daiwa Line

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the sushi bar inside:

453 Daiwa Sushi

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.454 Our Sushi Maker

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.

456 Unijpg

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.

462 Toilet

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:

464 Child Seat

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.

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