Film, Art, and Prosciutto

September 17th, 2013 7:30 am by Dave and Ray

We had a picturesque flight to Venice, seeing Dubrovnik and Split off in the distance and Venice on approach.

Venice was a lot of fun. Ray’s cousin John was spending a month there, and it was great hanging out with him pretty much the whole time. There were three things happening which we experienced each day: the film festival, the Biennale, and Venice itself.

We saw one film each day. “Je m’appelle Hmmm….” was about a young girl being molested by her father, who runs away and ends up hanging out with a truck driver. Of course, the truck driver, who is the sweetest person in the world to her, ends up being accused of molesting her himself. But before that happens, the middle 60% of the film is basically a really fun road movie. “The Wind Rises” is the final film from Hazao Miyazaki, the master Japanese animator who did “Spirited Away”. Unlike all of the other dreamy and somewhat supernatural movies he did, this one is a dramatization of the life of the young aeronautical engineer who designed the Zero fighter, and the Italian engineer who inspired him. “Under the Skin” stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who entices young men into a house where they become alien food or something: most of the explanation of what is happening is left to the imagination of the viewer. “Eastern Boys” is a rather improbable thriller where a man in Paris gives his address to a Ukranian rent-boy; the boy’s entire gang shows up at the house, and carts off the man’s possessions in the light of day. The most improbable part is that the relationship between the two continues after that. The competition for “most improbable part” is fierce, however.  The Venice festival has a different feeling than the SF International one:  instead of Q&As with the directors it’s all about red carpets, with adulating paparazzi and fans cheering the arrival of stars in Maseratis ferrying them around the island.

The Biennale was focused at two buildings at the eastern end of Venice, the Arsenale and the Giardini. Each was larger than most museums, and they housed twenty or thirty large rooms full of work. There were many interesting things in both places; one of the most special was the psychologist Carl Jung’s “Red Book”. I liked a roomful of plastic human-sized sculptures which had face casts of Venetians with bodies which were much more abstract. Each venue also had many “pavilions” from various countries, which like all art varied wildly in how interesting they were. More pavilions, and many other Biennale exhibitions from individual artists, were scattered all over town as well. Foundation Prada had reconstructed the Bern Kunsthalle in an old palace, and installed a seminal exhibition from 1969, using as much of the original art as possible; the most fun part of that was seeing how the new building fit into the old (they don’t). Ai Weiwei had scale models of his prison cell, with little windows where you could look in to watch him sleeping or eating or showering with guards watching him. I don’t know why they bothered, it’s all on Facebook anyway. The Iraq pavilion was set in a nice flat, with comfortable furniture where you could sit and read books about Iraq, and political cartoons and other art decorating the walls.

Both the films and the art gave us the opportunity to explore parts of Venice we’d never been to. The films were in Lido, and much of the art was way east past Piazza San Marco. The food wasn’t always so perfect: with so many tourists (Venice seems to have a great number of Italian tourists) there are many tourist restaurants with uninspired menus and execution, and super-expensive water: we would ask for “just plain water”, hoping for tap water, but we’d get glass bottles of still water which were upwards of €6 for .75 liter. We did go to “Al Covo”, which was really good. The most memorable eating experiences were at little bars serving cicchetti, Venice’s version of tapas: eat a plate of crostini with baccala or anchovies or cheese or prosciutto, or little seafood salads, and wash it down with a Campari or Aperol spritz. You can eat really well that way for less than €10. Then go somewhere for gelato for dessert: some places have some good flavors.

We were only there four days; we could easily have spent two weeks or longer seeing more films, more art, and more parts of the city.  With so much to see, and so little time, the days were completely action-packed and left no time for contemplation or writing postcards.  Certainly not blogging.

Our friend Doug mentioned that he was in Italy, so we both changed our schedules and met Thursday evening in Parma, home of Parmesan cheese and prosciutto, also known as Parma ham. We went to Parizzi, a nice one-Michelin-star restaurant for dinner Thursday. As we walked around the park before dinner, my phone rang: Osteria Francescana in nearby Modena, a three-Michelin-star restaurant rated third best in the world on someone’s list, replied to my email saying we could be available for lunch or dinner on either of the next two days. Amazingly, despite their small size, they had an opening for Friday lunch. So we had two meals, one very good and one stellar, in the space of 24 hours. All we could do after lunch on Friday was to return to the hotel and digest (after walking around Modena for a couple hours for the excellent wine pairing to wear off before driving back.)

Saturday we sampled the major sights in Parma itself, including the National Gallery (with tons of religious paintings from the 14th to 18th centuries) and the Cathedral. Then we went to the prosciutto festival in the village of Langhirano. A factory tour of Corradi Guerrino S.p.A. was conducted in Italian, but I never listen anyway, I only creep off to find good photos. There were massive numbers of hams hanging in row after row of carts, curing for two or three years; I realized that I was looking at a major proportion of the world’s prosciutto supply, that this was one of the only 150 producers in the area. They served free prosciutto and wine afterwards. Then we walked a block to the downtown area.

A block away, the evening’s village festival festivities were beginning with a marching band with baton twirlers, and another marching band, and a car show of old Alfas and Fiats and Ferarris, and quite unaccountably, a Hupmobile.

We washed it down with dinner at Antichi Sapori, which is what people in Parma eat when they aren’t having art pieces at restaurants serving dishes that are almost beyond food. We had a horsemeat appetizer, some plain but perfect garlic ricotta ravioli, the “pork in tuna sauce” we’d been seeing on many menus which turned out not to be really that interesting, and a parmesan tasting (they were all good).

Sunday we drove to the Bergamo airport, and found scales at a closed checkin counter. We juggled our suitcases until they were just so, avoided a 60 euro overweight fee, and were off to Dublin. In Dublin we had time to do one thing, which was to have dinner with Samuel, whom we met on the Palestinian tour. He took us to a pub in an old bank. The noise level was so high I didn’t hear all that he said. He is about one of the nicest people we have met on the whole trip. And he isn’t cadging us to help get him a visa.

The next day we stood in a number of lines to get back to America. Note to travellers: if you have an 11:25 flight from Dublin to Chicago, and they say the gate closes at 9:40, it is not a misprint. In addition to the usual lines for checking baggage and security, it turns out that in Dublin we were actually entering the United States. It took us about 50 minutes to get through the immigration lines, just barely catching our plane in Final Call status. It seems like the overturning of DOMA may have changed the attitude of US immigration agents. Since we aren’t brothers (like many people ask us if we are), a few agents historically haven’t even let us walk up together, though most have. Of course, we’ve always filled out two custom forms, which on the one hand refer to a household, and on the other refer to “family members”. This time, speaking to the agent, we were much more specific about our relationship (together 30 years, not married officially, living in the same house) and so she crumpled one of the two forms, and wrote “2” on the remaining one. That tells me to fill out only one from now on for both of us.

I don’t know why immigration is less advanced than most delicatessens. Why can’t you just take a number and go sit down? Instead you wind through an hour of lines, it doesn’t matter where, Chicago, Phoenix, Heathrow. It’s just dumb. The Chinese Embassy in San Francisco does it correctly. Dittmer’s Gourmet Meats does it correctly. Tomasita’s in Santa Fe gives you a little buzzer. (I think the answer to this is the Ryanair ethic: like Disneyland, you can squeeze hundreds of more people in the same room if they are standing in narrow winding queues, instead of being comfortable in chairs.)

We flew to Chicago against 100 knot headwinds. No scenery. A flight attendant yelled at me about my Garmin until we showed her in the magazine they were specifically permitted. (The inflight magazine is contradictory. It says you can’t use any device that sends or receives data. The GPS receives data, but it is permitted in the next list.)

We barely made it onto the flight to SFO. We didn’t get seats together; we were each seated next to European tourists who planned to go to SF, and also to Las Vegas, thinking for some reason there was something to see there. At least they also planned to see the Grand Canyon and perhaps others.

When we got to San Francisco, Paul picked us up and we had dinner at Ben Tre in Millbrae, a nice Vietnamese place. Then we bought some oranges for the next day since there isn’t a place to get orange juice in Sky Londa, except at our house. We drove home, and collapsed into bed.

Traveling with a Green Card

September 17th, 2013 7:13 am by Dave and Ray

Our final two Olympic Air propeller flights took us from Samos at 7am to Athens, and then on to Tirana, Albania. We found the Budget rental car agent in the Avis booth, who assured us that we could take the car into many other neighboring countries with the proper paperwork. He gave us all the ID cards and a notarized letter, and told us that we had to buy a “green card” which is some kind of international insurance policy. (For €40 for 15 days, it probably doesn’t insure much.) We drove into town, found the Hotel Baron after noticing that the main road through town had become very rough as part of some construction project.

The Hotel Baron is in a suburb on the old road to Elbasan. It overlooks a cow pasture next to a mosque. We had to insist they give us a room with a double bed. The Hotel Baron is not on the Bob Damron circuit, or if they are, they don’t know it. Between English usage and Balkan masculinity, they need to double check.

From the balcony of the hotel, a freeway is visible. We decided to see how far into town it goes. One day it will be possible to drive from Vlorë to Prishtina on a modern autobahn, but it’s less than half done and it peters out on the way into Tirana. There are no lines delineating lanes, and there are occasional 2-inch changes in the road level. It ends at a concrete barrier and a pile of trash. You turn right, and you are in an urban neighborhood about 2500 meters SW of Skanderbeg Square, and so is everyone else who took the freeway into town. Still, it was better than the other road.

We walked through town. Tourist information was closed. The black and white old post card reprints at the bookstore in the Stalinist Modern Movement-style Palace of Culture cost a dollar or more and that’s a lot of money for an Albanian post card.

We visited the National Art Gallery. It was instructive.

The small countries of the world usually follow the lead of the big ones, in responding to the stress that the industrial revolution placed upon art in the 19th and 20th centuries. Representational artists responded to the terminal illness in their profession brought on by printing technology and then photography, with the psychological stages you read about in Parade magazine — Denial (pre-Raphaelites), Anger (Impressionism), Bargaining (Cubism, Surrealism), Depression (Fluxus), and Acceptance (Music Videos) — and whether you are in Cuba or Colombia or a little town in Kansas you will see that the local artists have evolved their brushstrokes away from the mandate of reality in more or less the same temporal order but for some reason that didn’t happen in Albania, despite its cultural proximity to Italy, or at least it didn’t make it into the National Art Gallery.

Folk Art forms seem to have persisted right up until Hoxha forced socialist realism on everyone.  The socialist realist paintings occupy a whole floor, in full blown 21st century irony — how do they do that? This country suffered terribly under Hoxha. The man who rented us the car; his grandmother was killed in front of her house for not telling the police that her children had escaped to Yugoslavia. Everyone has a story like that. Why would they not burn any reminder of the era?

But they respect it, even enough to forbid photographs. Here is a curious museum observation: Museums generally don’t seem to mind people taking photos with their cell phones nearly as much. What a specific fetish.

We returned to the hotel, then braved the rough road to Sofra e Ariut, a fancy restaurant in the town’s large park where we had a large assortment of hot traditional appetizers, and a small main course. Afterwards, the traditionally-dressed waiter showed us around the place: the main building was a large log-cabin-like structure built from logs brought from Sweden. There were traditional women’s costumes hanging up everywhere, as well as some mounted butterflies. One of the rooms was the Laura Bush room, commemorating her visit there many years ago.

The Albanians love the Americans unconditionally and without detail. Woodrow Wilson insisted that Albania be instituted as a nation in 1920; Hoxha of course made everybody hate the Americans but he hated everybody, and as soon as he was gone, the Bushes and the Clintons stepped right up to hate the Serbs, and the way to an Albanian’s heart, even beyond acknowledging their national identity, is to hate the Serbs. Hating Serbs works more or less everywhere in Southeastern Europe. They don’t want to hear that Wilson owed an Albanian fraternal organization in Boston a favor, or that Kosova has deposits of strategic minerals and anyway bombing Chinese embassies is great fun. You know what? I like Albanians too.

Sunday we left Tirana, drove down towards Elbesan (where we were treated to a few stretches of new freeway), and then turned towards Lake Ohrid straddling the Albania/Macedonian border like Tahoe straddles California and Nevada. In Elbesan, there were at least three wedding processions (the lead car was always the videographer shooting the cars which followed), and there were several more as the day wore on. Another thing we saw everywhere we went in Albania were places which would wash your car: LAVAZH. There was a particular string of them as we approached Lake Ohrid where they advertised by spouting water into the air. The roads toward the lake were winding and pretty; we started on the longer route to the Macedonian lake resort town of Ohrid around the south end of the lake, instead of the more direct one in the north. Bad idea. On the Albanian side, it was misery: the road was torn up, there was tons of traffic, and while it wasn’t as developed as Lake Como, it didn’t have anything you’d consider wilderness the entire way. There was a version of South Lake Tahoe at the end, but with crazy Albanian traffic instead of casinos. We got to the border, easily crossed out of Albania, but the Macedonian police said that the places to get the green card we needed to take the car into Macedonia were closed on Sunday. Fortunately we were able to drive back a mile to Albania, and get one from a place there that was open, then we entered Macedonia with no problem. The Macedonian side of the lake was a national park, and was a very nice drive, on a nice road with little traffic, the whole reason Ray had decided to take this route in the first place. We found our hotel, right on the lake shore in the center of town, with a bit of difficulty. In the summer many of the beach side streets in Ohrid are closed. We parked the car in the hotel’s private area, and were able to walk around for two nights with no traffic or parking issues. The Hotel Aleksandrija is a nice place, though I chose it because my friend Nikola works there. It was nice to touch base with him again.

We walked up to the fortress area, which had been improved with more stairways and railings since Ray had been there five years earlier. It afforded many nice views of the lake and the town. From there, we rambled down the streets, past the antique theater, to Damar, one of the restaurants which seemed interesting. They served a nice meal including “country meat”, a little casserole with chunks of pork and mushrooms and cheese. Everyone in the Balkans refers to unripened cheeses such as feta, ricotta, halloumi, labneh, and panir as “white cheese”, and they use the term “yellow cheese” to describe what we would simply call “cheese”; the casserole had melted “yellow” cheese. The restaurant was directly across from St. Sophia Church, a charming little Orthodox church with beautiful frescoes on all the ceilings and walls, and particularly the bluish ones at the front above the altar. The frescoes had been whitewashed by the Turks when they invaded; the whitewash was fairly successfully removed by restorers over the years, but the frescoes have a much more pastel appearance as a result, instead of the deep colors you see in so many other Byzantine churches. Anyway, we noticed a bunch of people standing around outside the church, and we decided to see if it was open after dinner. It turned out that there was a concert happening there in about ten minutes, part of the Ohrid Summer Festival, so we decided to buy tickets. It was a concert featuring two Russian pianists, a 20-year-old young man named Arseny Tarasevich, and a slightly older woman named Varvara Nepomnyaschaya. They had both won recent competitions, and were both excellent. But we both thought Tarasevich was more excellent: it really seemed like he wasn’t even trying, but his playing was quite captivating. The stuff he played ended up sounding a little muddy in the echoey church, except that the Ravel “Gaspard de la Nuit” sounded just fine. He seemed a little arrogant in his personal style, but if he plays that well, he gets to be. Her playing sounded like it was closer to her limits, and it seemed a little odd that her second encore was basically a blues piece, disorienting after all the classical music we’d heard. And I was a little annoyed that my perfect pitch has become imperfect: everything sounded to me as though it was a whole tone higher: the pieces in F major sounded to me like they were in G major. I haven’t played for too many years: no practice makes no perfect.

Monday we had the whole day in Ohrid to walk around, and we put on long pants and visited several churches. There were some tiny ones, most of which were closed and we just walked past, but some of which were open as well. One of the main ones we saw was St. Bogorodica Perivlepta, where a lady with a PhD gave us a tour and explanation of the icons and frescoes all over the church, but her accent was so thick and the acoustics so resonant that I hardly caught anything at all. Apparently several of the scenes focused on the life of the Virgin Mary.  The worship of the Mother God was not nearly as eradicated by the Hebrews as they had hoped.

The other one was St. Clement’s monastery “St. Pantheleimon”, which is primarily an archeological site which has undergone a massive amount of construction since Ray was here last. One of the old churches there had red tile roofs hanging in midair where they would have been, and elevated walkways above the ruins of the walls and mosaic floors. The main church was completely rebuilt above the few feet of wall which remain. But the current construction appears to be large buildings for a new university or monastery or something, with a foundation propped up directly above ruins of ancient structures. We walked along the lake, watching masses of tourists actually swim in it: it really is a nice beautifully clear lake (unlike the algae-covered Clear Lake in California, where all our friends have been for the last two weeks) but it’s probably really cold.

After awhile we went to a different restaurant near St. Sophia’s church, had a different traditional meal, and went to the Monday festival concert, which featured Serbian violinist Nemanja Radulovic and US pianist Susan Manoff. Apparently Mr. Radulovic is a local star, because the entire church was packed; we ended up in the last row (except for the one they added later to deal with the large crowd). He’s an incredible player with an amazing dynamic range, and the two of them have played together a lot and are quite tight. Again, the French pieces, including Franck and Ravel, were the most successful in the church. The encores were mostly enjoyable, but we could have done without “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”.

Tuesday we got back into the car, and drove to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. After dropping off stuff at the hotel, we headed to the old market area so Ray could look at antique shops to add to his collection of mortars and pestles; we found a couple nice brass ones from the late 1800s. While the antiquities dealer is selling you stuff, it is all old, rare, and authentic. After the deal is complete, he takes pains to assure you that it is all new, cheap, and not the export of a national treasure. Hopefully the souvenirs won’t put us over our weight limit on Ryanair, but we can always load up our pockets, wear all our clothes simultaneously, whatever it takes to have the checked bags be 15kg or less, and the carryons 10kg or less.

We walked around downtown, and Ray observed that most of what we saw wasn’t there five years earlier: they have been building many monuments, including a huge one of Alexander the Great (remember, he was from Macedonia) and several large museums. The contemporary art museum was also under renovation so we couldn’t go there. There’s a new Arc de Triomphe copy, called the Gate of Macedonia. It makes as much sense as the one in Bucharest.

After resting at the hotel, we returned downtown, and had dinner with Goran and Philip, some really nice guys Ray had met during previous visits and kept in touch with over the years.

We realized that the plans for Wednesday were probably not doable. We had planned to drive to Pristina in Kosovo to have lunch at Tiffany’s, then drive to Novi Pazar, near Stari Ras, the site of the medieval capital of Serbia. Unfortunately, Google refused to route us on the road directly connecting the two, due to the ongoing troubles between Serbia and Kosovo. Instead, it wanted to send us back through Montenegro, resulting in total of three border crossings for the day. So we eliminated both of those from the plans, and decided to go to Niš in Serbia instead, a medium-sized town between Skopje and Thursday’s destination, Sarajevo.

Niš has an old fortress enclosing a pleasant city park, and it has the Skull Tower, which was built by the Turks from the skulls of soldiers who tried to repel their advances into the area during the First Serbian Uprising in 1809. The idea of the tower was to intimidate the locals, but they honor the tower as a symbol of the spirit of their soldiers fighting. The incident that gave rise to the skulls was actually a mass suicide, even greater than that which occurred at Masada. Serbian Stevan Sinđelić, rather than surrender, ignited his ammunition stores, and the resultant explosion killed all his troops and a number of Turks as well. The skulls of 952 Serbs were recovered in good enough shape to build a tower out of;  how did they know they were Serbs, anyway? They didn’t have DNA testing then.

Here is a fashion note at odds with the general skin-bleaching trend: our hero Stevan Sinđelić is described in contemporary documents as having blond curly hair and a light yellow mustache. Yet he is always depicted with dark hair and skin because it lends seriousness and gravity to his actions. This according to the multimedia presentation in the museum there.

The tower itself is a white stone tower with skulls embedded in all four sides. These days there are probably 5% of the skulls left in place, and the whole thing is enclosed in another building. You can no longer hear the wind whistle through the skull cavities, which so impressed the romantic poets who visited the site in the 19th century.

We went to a well-recommended restaurant called Nislijska Mehana, near the fort of Nis; let the waiter bring us food, and we ended up with so much that we had to bring half of it home. We had it for lunch on the road the next day.

Thursday was a marathon driving day. As we left on our nominally-six-hour drive, Ray asked if we should stop at a monastery, which would only add 90 minutes to the driving time. It seemed like there would be enough light, so we did. A half hour of freeway was followed by a half hour of driving through one tiny town after another, which turned into an hour of driving over one ridge after another. No problem, the Serbian countryside was quite pretty, with distinctively shaped haystacks, and some charcoal burners still in use, decorating the hills.

We arrived at the monastery, finished the previous night’s dinner, then walked around inside. The walls of the complex were circular; several archaeological workmen were using pickaxes and shovels to do some excavations. In the main church, there was scaffolding everywhere, and most of the frescoes had a matrix pattern of pits. The guide explained that someone several hundred years ago decided to plaster over the frescoes, and made the pits so the plaster would stick. More recent restorers scraped off all the plaster and found the original pitted frescoes, which are being restored one at a time.

We continued on towards the Bosnia border, where the landscape suddenly went from pretty to stunningly beautiful. A canyon led to Visigrad, a pretty little city with a big river, which led to a long section of a narrow reservoir (the highway was going through almost continuous tunnels). After leaving the reservoir, the road descended through another pretty river canyon, and then wound over one ridge after another, finally descending a hillside until, boom, we were on the main street of Sarajevo’s old town — the entry into town reminded me of the entry into Medellin, which is also located in a narrow canyon between high mountains. We found our guest house, put the car in the garage, and walked into town for a little snack, still somewhat full from the leftovers at lunch.

Friday we walked around Sarajevo, mostly the Old Town. None of the mosques or churches seemed to be open to tourists, but the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque complex was interesting: the fountain had inscriptions on the ceiling in several completely different styles of Arabic; a BetaBrite LED display showed the times the various prayers would occur today. A clock tower across the street had a clock which was also reworked to indicate prayer times. We visited an old synagogue which had become the Jewish Museum.

As with so many places in Eastern Europe, there is Holocaust remembrance without particularly many Jews. Sarajevo did not lose as many as some other places, as there was something of an underground railroad toward Mostar, which was under Italian control. The same track that Muslims were using to escape when the Serbian militias were trying to kill them all twenty years ago. Mark it as a route on your GPS.

And for this reason, there is a bit of Righteous Among Nations inflation at work. One Christian was granted that status, and his picture is up in the synagogue, for not spitting on his Jewish friends, when instructed to do so by the Nazis. He did get in trouble for it, but “righteous”? Is there an honorific for the Kinda OK Among Nations?

Moving away from the Jewish sphere, we went on to the Meat and Dairy market and bought a tasty piece of smoked salami and a chunk of very sweet cheese. The cheese was like butter made from condensed milk. We wandered around some more, paying rather too much money to get into a one-room museum on the corner where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. The museum is devoted to Austrian-occupied Bosnia, and especially that one attentät. If someone strikes it rich on an inheritance from an heirless Nigerian prince, he can buy me one of the commemorative iron mortars and pestles which were issued with the embossed letters: “1914”. The prices will spike with the upcoming centennial, but after that it should be OK. 1914, 1389, they don’t even need to mention Cinco de Mayo or 9/11 out here, enough just to say the year and the memory is recovered.

We rested for awhile, and then it was time to eat. Up a steep hill in the other direction about a thousand meters is a nice restaurant, Kibe, where we just barely got in. It has superb views of the city, but we were stuck in a back room and didn’t really see them. At this place, and at most of our restaurant experiences here, things seemed somewhat “fast food”, with the main course coming at the same time as the starters, or immediately after they are removed from the table. Has the idea of pacing not made it to this part of the world? Or does everyone uniformly want to get us out of their restaurant as quickly as possible?

Speaking of underground railroads, on the way out of town Saturday we stopped at the Tunnel Museum, via an iffy dirt road as part of Google Maps’ route. During the Homeland War of the mid-1900s, Sarajevo was surrounded by Serbian troops in the hills above, and so the Bosnian army built a tunnel under the airport’s runway, used to bring supplies into the city, and to get refugees out of it. It’s a cute little museum which has a video describing the situation, a few rooms with memorabilia, and about 25m of tunnel you can walk in. Watch your head. It had rails to facilitate moving carts full of food or guns.

We left the museum and headed to Mostar, which has a famous old bridge that was destroyed in the Homeland War. Afterwards, they rebuilt it pretty much as it was. “Most” is the word for bridge, and as we encountered the extreme hordes of tourists and junk shops next to the bridge, I renamed it “Most St. Michel” because it gave exactly the same impression. A few guys jumped off the bridge every once in awhile into the deep river below, then passed a fez to try to make a few euros. I was happy to leave the tourist trap behind and to get back on the road towards Split. I dutifully followed the road signs towards Split, and ended up arcing way north of town; I suppose they were trying to keep me off the toll road or something. We finally found our Airbnb accommodation, someone renting out a room in Grandma’s house close to the Old Town. They sent us to a kind of stuffy restaurant two minutes away, where we had some good grilled monkfish steaks.

The main tourist zone of Split is Diocletian’s Palace, which takes up about four city blocks, and is filled with little shops and restaurants and hotels. It has a few sights, including a Sphinx stolen from the Egyptians, and a church. We started out there Sunday morning, but the crowds and trinket shops pretty much cover the entire palace region so we quickly headed west.

The Ivan Markovic Museum is located in a ritzy neighborhood along the peninsula that defines the west part of Split. Markovic was a prolific sculptor, and much of his work is found around town as well. A chapel near the museum has carved wood panels of events in Jesus’ life, and a modern-looking crucifix made in 1916. He is an exception to the rule that artists are usually only good at drawing or sculpting either boys or girls. He seems very accurate and dedicated with each.

There were so many good places to eat in Split that we had two meals both of the two days we were there: on Sunday it was Konoba Kod Joze in the afternoon, and a snack at Wine and Cheese Bar Paradox later at night. At the Paradox, we learned that Luka had been through during the last week. Luka is one of the owners of the Palo Alto Grill, and before that he owned Lavanda. His hometown is Split. You should go to his restaurant, it’s great.

Monday was spent touring the Gallery of Fine Arts, featuring Croatian art from the 14th century to the present, with a rather extensive contemporary collection. A tiny hole in the wall, Villa Spiza, had been entirely nonexistent on Sunday, but provided a delicous grilled sea bream on Monday afternoon. We walked through Marjan, their version of Golden Gate Park, and after resting for awhile had a late dinner at the small but popular Konoba Matejuska. They had a menu, but the waiter verbally listed what had been caught that day: we had delicious grilled hake and tuna.

Tuesday we drove from Split to Dubrovnik, avoiding the freeway and going down the road along the coast. The northbound traffic had two major traffic jams that I was happy not to have been in, but the only problem southbound was some congestion at Omis, which is popular because a raftable river has punctured a wide hole in a picturesque cliff.

There are three longish islands south of Split which we’d considered going to, but decided that ferry rides would take up too much of the day; we saw these edge-on as we drove down the coast.

The waters around the foot of a long peninsula just north of Dubrovnik were filled with oyster farms; we stopped at a restaurant in Mali Ston to sample some of the local oysters, and also an assortment of mussels including Noah’s Arch, a kind of mussel found mostly in northern Croatia which is more strongly flavored than most. To get to our guest house here, Google Maps expected us to take a driveway off the main coast road steeply downhill onto a tiny street with no sign; instead we found the road coming up the hill on somewhat larger roads. We parked nearby, and said the address aloud; a guy standing there indicated that if we were staying at 13, we should park in the garage, so he moved his car out, and I moved ours in. Jamie Oliver had a webpage recommending Dubrovnik restaurants, and Amfora, the one he said not to miss, had a nice octopus terrine and tasty suckling pig.

Dubrovnik is set on a coastal slope, with roads running along it, and steps running up and down between them. There is an old city surrounded by intact city walls which is still quite slopy inside. Wednesday, after a relaxed and rainy morning, we walked to the Old City and had breakfast at the Art Bar, where some sofa-like seats are made out of bathtubs.

We bought a 24-hour Dubrovnik Card at tourist information, gaining a 10% Internet discount by buying it online on our cellphone while standing there.

We wandered around somewhat aimlessly inside the walls for a few hours, looking into a few churches, and walked back. Then we got the car, maneuvered it down a steep slope, and drove to the art museum, starting the 24 hours on the card. Its current exhibition wasn’t particularly interesting, just many flat sculptures made out of various balls of paper. Oh well. Then we proceeded to Konoba Dubrava, a restaurant in a tiny village across the main highway, where upon making a reservation you have to tell them if you want the lamb, which takes three hours to cook. It is covered with a metal “bell” which is then covered with ashes. They cook bread and potatoes in the same fashion, and it is all delicious. The road to it is absurd, especially when other tourists stop to look at the sunset in the middle of a hairpin turn. There are not even driveways in our mountains that are so steep and narrow.

Thursday we incredibly ticked off all of the remaining attractions on the Dubrovnik Card: we walked the city walls, which featured great views of the Adriatic as well as the old city; we went to a tiny museum celebrating a 16th-century playwright, and the Ethnographic Museum which had a display of traditional Polish toys, in addition to the usual displays of traditional Croatian clothing and tools. The Maritime Museum had many models of ships, sailing ships downstairs and steamships upstairs. Dubrovnik had had a flourishing shipping industry, being kind of the gateway from the Middle East and China to Europe; it faded somewhat after America started up, and the global shipping focus changed to transatlantic traffic. The Natural History museum had home-made exhibits on endangered birds, local fish, and a special room with incredible underwater photos. I didn’t know that the Adriatic had all those creatures.

The Rector’s Palace had some cute old rooms, and an interesting exhibition about Stjepan Gradić, a statesman who represented Dubrovnik in Europe and who was instrumental in arranging aid from European nations after a devastating earthquake in Dubrovnik in 1667. We went to Restaurant Dubrovnik and split a salt-baked seabass, which was very tasty. This involves encasing the thing being baked in a huge pile of salt; we had only seen this done with chicken at Kirin Restaurant in Mountain View (and eventually at home). After dinner, there was a concert at the Rector’s Palace; tickets were more expensive than the cash we had. We ended up with “standing room” tickets, with which we sat on the stairs above the performers and watched the fingers on the piano keys from above. There was a piano duo for the first half, and a string ensemble for the second; none of it was nearly as exciting as the performances in Ohrid. Theme with variations on Happy Birthday; really.

Friday we checked out of the hotel and crossed into Montenegro, happy we were not in the 2km line of cars heading the other direction. This is the season when the Albanian workers return to Italy.

We drove along the edge of a twisted bay to Kotor, another old walled city, much smaller than Dubrovnik. The interesting thing to do there was to walk up out of the city to the fortifications high on the hills above: along the way we met a couple of English guys our age who were on a cruise with their wives; when we got back down we had a beer with them. We got back on the road, followed the directions of Google Maps which took us on a long obscure road with lots of traffic but which wasn’t really wide enough in most places for a car to pass a bus. It got dark. Finally we reached the Albanian border, then the small city of Shkodra, and a little ways from the center we found the Florian Shkodra Guest House, no help from Google, not knowing about the one way streets.

Fortunately they served dinner, which consisted of vegetables grown in their garden, homemade bread, and homemade wine. It was extremely simple, but one of the best meals we’d had, and under €200! (It was €4.) I don’t know why we ever leave Albania.

Saturday we got a tour from Florian’s young cousin, including an old stone bridge, and the immense castle on a hill. Florian sent us away with grapes from his garden, which got the steering wheel and gearshift quite sticky as we drove back to the Tirana airport. (We found ourselves on the wrong road, and Google Maps suggested a road to get to the right one which quickly became dirt and then a very questionable bridge across a creek. Worse-looking than the road to the Sarajevo tunnel museum. This time, we bailed and found a better route further away.) We returned the rental car to the jolly agent, and proceeded to the plane.

A Few Spots In Greece

August 21st, 2013 7:04 pm by Dave and Ray

Getting on the El Al flight to Athens was a little disorienting: we were in row 22, which turned out to be the second row of the plane. We arrived late at night for our 23-hour layover; there was no wait at the passport line and the Alamo/National guy got us on the way to our car with the least fuss and delay that I can remember. We drove to our little hotel. The next morning, we were directed to The Mall for breakfast, and the guard motioned us towards the food court. The first thing we saw was a Starbucks; thankfully, there were several other places, including one with great orange juice, pastries, and coffee. The mall itself was empty as it was Sunday morning, but had all the usual mall stores, with virtually no Greek script: most of the names were the typical worldwide mall franchises. We then took off on a drive about 90 minutes north of Athens, starting at Chaeronea, which has a massive statue of a lion. It is the place where Philip of Macedonia and Alexander the Great defeated Thebes (which is nearby) and Athens. There was a small archaeological museum nearby with several artifacts from the area. Then we went to the Byzantine monastery of Hosios Loukos, which was amazingly decorated with frescoes and icons. There was just enough time to get back to the airport, get in an argument with Alamo/National about gas, and catch our flight to Mykonos, where we stayed for the next three nights.

We stayed at Hotel Jason, a pleasant place atop the road between the main town and the Plati Giallo beach; a bus takes you to either place for €1.60. Monday we walked down into town, and bought stamps and had breakfast, noticing that the streets were pretty empty at 10 in the morning. We spent the day at the hotel writing postcards and doing laundry. That evening we went back into town, where a cruise ship had arrived. We inspected the town’s signature windmills (without sails attached, so they no longer turn) and at ate “m-eating”, easily the most sophisticated and delicious place we’ve eaten at Greece on this trip. After dinner, as we walked back to the bus, we noticed that the town was totally hopping: all the shops were open and the streets were packed. If we’d stayed up even later there would have been loathsome dance parties. One of the interesting statistics we learned about Mykonos is that it has 10,000 inhabitants, but often has 150,000 visitors.

Tuesday we got to town early, and got on the 9am boat out to Delos, the adjacent island whose ruins are a World Heritage site. A guide offered her services for ten euros per person, and told us much about the history of the place, and all its conquests. Delos was once a flourishing city-state, with massive temples and sculptures, largely celebrating Apollo. We toured the ruins of where the 1% lived, and the area with the temples. After the tour, we walked through the museum, and up the hill to the ruins of the Temple of Zeus, where there was a good view of the entire island. Due to the economic problems in Greece, the 3pm boat had been cancelled that day, and the last one back was an hour earlier than we expected. We took the bus back up to the hotel, relaxed for awhile, then walked down to the beach and ate at the nicest of the beach resort restaurants, Avli Tou Thodori. It seemed like a more earthy restaurant than m-eating, but we had kind of an exotic order: their watermelon & feta salad, fried anchovies (enormous for anchovies), mussels steamed with fennel (all mussels should be), and a dish of sea urchin (much tinier than most uni you see), ending with some tomatoes and a pepper stuffed with rice. We were full, and mentioned that we’d seen their plate of donut holes and couldn’t possibly eat it. So they brought us one on the house as a challenge.

Until we’d walked to the beach, we’d only seen the places in town and on the way there. We’d priced fresh-squeezed orange juice, as we often do, noting it was €3 or €3.50 on the road and the edge of town, rising up to €5 and €6 in the middle of the town. As we walked to the beach Tuesday night, we saw a place close to the hotel advertising it for €2.50, so we went there Wednesday morning for breakfast. As you find out every time you fly, sometimes the cheapest orange juice may be behind you. We returned to the hotel, checked out, and flew back to Athens and then immediately to Samos. All of these inter-island flights we have taken are on little 80-passenger two-propeller Bombardier Q400 planes, which have exciting landings as they try to stay on the runway immediately after touching down. (A free snack and soft drinks were served on each flight during the five minutes between ascent and descent.) We hadn’t arranged a pickup from the airport, so we took a taxi, and found out that the place we were staying was 2.5km up the hill from Pythagorion in a newish hotel with nothing around anywhere. The owner somehow didn’t realize that we had a reservation, and made us wait in the lobby for 90 minutes or so while he did other stuff before he came back and gave us our room. But hey, he owns four properties and is a busy guy. He gave us a ride into town for dinner — to his taverna, which was simple and had good food. We walked around town afterwards, stopping in at the many rental car places which were open, which all said they had no cars available for the next five days. So our transport was long walks and €6 taxi rides.

Thursday we walked down the hill into town, had our standard fresh orange juice, pastries, and cappuccino, and then walked to four of the major attractions: an archaeological museum, an ancient theater (which is just ruins under a modern wooden structure that is actively used), a monastery with a shrine located deep inside a cave, and, the reason we came to Samos in the first place, the Tunnel of Eupalinos. This guy, in the 6th century BC, performed the amazing engineering feat of building a 1km tunnel under a mountain from both ends simultaneously, with the two bores successfully meeting in the middle. The tunnel carried a water pipe from a spring to provide water for the city of Pythagorion which in those times had 80,000 inhabitants. (It appears that Megiddo, which we’d seen in Israel, was also dug from both ends three centuries earlier, but it was only 70m long.)

We took a taxi to the Temple of Hera just outside the nearby town of Heraion, an archeological site which like many we’ve seen was a mishmash of several successive constructions. It can get pretty difficult to figure out which wall you see corresponds to which diagram on the map. Besides the temples themselves, built starting in the 9th century BC, with the great temple built in the 6th century BC in the glory days of Samos, there were ruins of a small Roman basilica, with the 16th century AD ruins on top of the 6th century AD ruins. We caught a ride back to Pythagorion with a Swiss tourist who told us about a contemporary art exhibit he was there to review. We walked around town, had a nice dinner at Aphrodite featuring a grilled octopus leg and a chunk of goat kid neck or back, and then went to see the exhibit. The artists call themselves Slavs and Tatars, and the exhibition was called “Long-Legged Linguistics”. We got a guided tour around the exhibits, including “Tongue Twist Her”, a resin tongue slithering down a pole-dancing pole mounted on a carpeted base; two artworks in the form of large black-on-white carpets; “Kitab Kebab”, several books speared on a skewer; and “River Beds”, a reference to public structures in Iran where men and women could talk in public. These beds had the artists’ books mounted so you could browse them. It was refreshing to see some new stuff after the weeks of antiquities.

Friday was another day of vacation from the trip: we stayed at the hotel and did laundry and wrote postcards and blogged. We walked down the hill, and found some shortcuts which made it seem like a much shorter trip, saving maybe 25% of the distance. And we found Thanasis’ Sister, an “ouzeri” (restaurant specializing in ouzo) serving pretty much only “tapas”; their chick pea balls aren’t falafel, they are pakoras with chunks of onion and chick peas. They also had delicious homemade sausage.

We woke our host at 5:45am Saturday for a trip to the airport, and forgot to give him back the key. I hope he has gotten it back from the airport security office by now.

Watch the Magician’s Other Hand

August 12th, 2013 12:40 pm by Dave and Ray

I will start this post with our daily experiences on the tour, and conclude with the basic history leading to the current situation, the facts of life in the area today, and a comment or two about the future.
The tour started Monday morning with a short lecture explaining the history which I recount below. The guide likened the situation to a magician, who wants you to watch one of his hands (the ones shaking those of politicians in the US) but not the other (the ones building the walls, and crafting the policies which make modern life unpleasant for the Palestinians).

After the lecture, we walked around the Old City. The guide pointed out a house in the Muslim district, claimed by Ariel Sharon as kind of a one-house settlement, which all people exiting the Damascus Gate from the Muslim Quarter of the Old City see as they leave, with its big Israeli flag and its security cameras. We got on the roof of the Austrian Hospice and looked at the Temple Mount from afar, with the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Dome of the Rock is a beautiful golden dome housing a large rock, whose location is revered by both Jews and Muslims. The Muslims believe that Gabriel took Muhammad from here to pray with Moses and Jesus. After the 1967 war, the Israelis raised their flag over the Dome, but Moshe Dayan wisely kept the peace by keeping it under control of the Muslims. A few years ago some Zionist teenagers were caught (by Israeli police) planning to blow it up. Rather than plunge these teenagers into serious legal trouble, the Palestinians were subjected to even more draconian restrictions in order to prevent the retaliation that the government assumed would happen.  While it is illegal to discuss destroying the dome, this has not stopped many artists from making paintings, for sale in the Jewish quarter of the Old City, showing what it might look like after this happens, and the temple is rebuilt.  One of the postcards we bought illustrates the “river to river” ambitions of the Zionists, who would like to claim all of the land from the Nile to the Euphrates rivers: the 10-shekel-cent coin shows what Arabs claim is this land area beneath a menorah.  (The Christian Zionists are going to be so disappointed when this happens and the Jews STILL don’t convert to Christianity and Jesus STILL stays dead.)

We looked at the Western Wall, the western side of the Temple Mount. At one time it was a narrow pathway which Jews had to crowd into in order to get as close as they could to the Dome. But a few days after the 1967 war, a Moroccan neighborhood which was located next to it was given one hour to clear out, and then bulldozed; the residents were relocated into a refugee camp where they remain. Now there is a spacious plaza next to the wall, and it is a major area for tourists, with no mention anywhere of the people who used to live there. There are separate parts for men and women to pray at; the men’s section includes an area underneath an existing neighborhood offering shade and air-conditioning. When we were there, several bar mitzvahs were in progress; groups of men and boys would sing and dance as they took a Torah from a cabinet along the Wall to the ceremony room and back.

One thing we noticed at Capernaeum and the Western Wall is that people write down prayer requests on little bits of paper and tuck them into the wall. I don’t think this works: they just get stuck there and no one looks at them. Personally, I think it is much more effective to attach them to the Temple of the Year at Burning Man, which is burned on Sunday night: the act of burning causes God to actually read the requests and do something about them.

We had a delicious lunch of hummus at Lina’s, and then started the afternoon’s tours of the greater Jerusalem area. Our guide for the afternoon was Fred, the director of Green Olive Tours. We looked at the walls, some checkpoints, and the ways many Israeli and Palestinian roadways are carefully constructed so as not to intersect. We drove through a couple settlements. They look like Santa Clarita, but with more apartments and duplexes. Finally we were dropped off at the house of a Christian family living in Beit Sahour, a suburb of Bethlehem, where we stayed for four nights. Even though Gmail was initially skeptical about my connecting from a Palestinian IP address, their Wi-Fi allowed us to post our experiences much faster and more reliably than the hotel we’d stayed in the previous two nights.

Tuesday the focus was Bethlehem, and the guide was Yamin, a local Palestinian resident. (He drives a Mercedes limo with a million km on it, and only its second engine.) First we drove out into the nearby desert to a monastery located across from a cliff full of caves. We saw many segments of Security Wall, ie Separation Wall, ie Fragmentation Wall. While they say the wall is built “for security reasons”, it is always pretty obvious that it is built to create wide swaths of land for settlements to expand into. We stopped at a small workshop where some people were cranking out souvenirs from olive wood: the cutest machine was a 3-d pantograph, where a worker traced a completed figurine, and eight other drill bits made the corresponding cuts in eight pieces of wood, creating eight more identical ones. Several other workers touched up the results.

We had a brief visit to the Church of the Nativity, crowding into the underground chamber representing the place where Jesus was born. We then headed to the Aida refugee camp, which has been there since 1948. In 1952 it became clear that it wouldn’t close anytime soon, so the UN tore down the tents and built small apartments. In the camp, we visited Al-Rowwad, an organization which gives refugee children an opportunity to learn theater, photography, computers, sewing, etc. They have toured all over the world, and gotten audiences everywhere except the place it seems to me they need most to perform: Israel. As mentioned below, they are not permitted to go there, and Israeli citizens are not permitted to come see them.

We then walked along a perverse section of wall protruding into the village, surrounding a parking lot for a house containing Rachel’s Tomb; this section of wall was extensively decorated with graffiti and murals, including a few by Banksy. He has a shop located across the street, selling postcards, t-shirts, and posters, and olive-wood nativity scenes with a removable separation wall between the three kings and the baby Jesus.  We headed out to the desert for lunch with a man who lives in a cave on a large plot of land, for which a group of settlers offered him $10 million. If he sold, other Palestinians would kill him; if he doesn’t, it will probably be taken anyway somehow: the government is very enthusiastic to take that land in order to dramatically expand settlements. He said he would die there. Watch the news.

Tuesday night we attended a lecture given in English by Nassar Ibrahim, a Palestinian writer with a thick accent, at the Alternative Information Center cafe, a room with bad acoustics. He was talking about the situation in Syria, and was speculating that the desire to control natural gas pipelines was influencing America’s and Europe’s behavior (duh…), though the Syria conflict seems so messed up that I can’t even really imagine what America or Europe can do about it in such a way that will give them the outcome they would like (they can’t promote dictatorship, and democracy will result in an Islamic win, which they don’t really want either). Afterwards, we walked around the old city as everyone crowded into it, doing last minute Eid shopping after their evening meal.

Wednesday we drove up to Nablus, the economic capital of the West Bank. It has historic ties to Damascus as a trading center. It is surrounded by three military bases which in 2002, “for security reasons”, conducted massive airstrikes, demolishing many buildings in the city, presumably to further cripple the Palestinians economically. We visited Jacob’s Well, a 4000-year-old well which still operates, and is located under a nice little church.  One of the abbotts at the monastery, Father Archimandrite Philoumenis, was brutally murdered in the church by an axe-wielding Zionist.  A cross was cut in his face, his eyes plucked out, and the four fingers and thumb of his right hand cut off.

We toured the Balata refugee camp, where our guide Ayash and his family still live, which like the others consists of small apartments built by the UN in 1958. We visited the Women’s Center, which provides some services to refugee women, including beauty salon training and a gym. The camp has one clinic for its 28,000 residents. We walked through the Old City (where everyone was doing their shopping for Eid), stopping in a spice shop and a Turkish bath house. After a pleasant lunch, we went to the Samaritan Museum, where the high priest of that small sect explained it (while I nodded off somewhat having not had that many hours to sleep the night before). The Samaritans are Jews who adopted their own practices long before the state of Judaea had its problems with Rome, and were never evicted at the time of the diaspora. Their practices still include temple sacrifices at Pesach but, different temple on a different mountain. The Orthodox regard them as country cousins and are very protective, said Fred, and the ultra Orthodox regard them as impostors. You can’t please everybody.

On a brief walk, we saw Nablus from above, and headed back to Bethlehem.

The way Ramadan works is that it ends the day after the mullahs actually see the new moon. It turned out that the moon, while a good 18 hours into its new month and therefore big enough to show a crescent, was almost directly to the south of the sun, and set only four minutes later. So Ray and I figured that it would still be too bright to see the moon. Indeed, we went up onto the roof, and even using binoculars could not see it, though the horizon was quite high where we were (30 minutes remained until they both set). But apparently the mullahs did in fact see it as it set over the Mediterranean, and proclaimed the end of Ramadan, which means that the festival of Eid happened Thursday. If they hadn’t seen it, everyone would have to fast one more day, and Eid would have been on Friday.

Our host in Beit Sahour, Samer, who runs Alternative Tourism, was our tour guide for Thursday’s trip to Hebron. Hebron is the home of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where many Old Testament figures are buried: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah. This site is very holy to both Judaism and Islam. It was off-limits to Jews until after 1967, when an arrangement was made to open it to them two days a year. There were several attacks on Jews in the following years. After the Oslo accords, an American-Israeli settler massacred 29 praying Muslims; others there killed him with fire extinguishers, which are now longer allowed in mosques. Now it is open 12 days a year to Jews, 12 days to Muslims, and is divided, open to both separately the rest of the year. Because Eid ended up on Thursday, we were unable to do much of anything on the trip: all the stores were closed because it was a holiday, and the Tomb was closed to us because the local Muslims were using it. We did have lunch in a private house, and had fascinating conversations with a group of activists from Christian Peacemaker Teams who are helping make the Hebron residents’ lives better. We took a short walk in a small Jewish settlement in the middle of Hebron. There are fences and checkpoints everywhere, and 2000 soldiers, to protect the 500 settlers.

The streets were quiet — most stores were closed and most people were with their families for Eid. A few kids were about, playing with their new toy guns and the girls in their new dresses. The Street Arabs all said where are you from and what is your name and one shekel and either posed or said NO PHOTO or PAPA NOEL. In the Settler area, nobody said anything, but one person said “FUCK YOU” to one of our Jewish traveling companions. There were 17 people on the Hebron tour. An IDF guy on the roof with a machine gun was glumly helpful in giving advice where we shouldn’t go and what we shouldn’t take pictures of.

A Jewish guy from Brooklyn asked me why I thought the Arabs were all so nice to us and the Jews were so hateful and rude. I speculated that it was part of their religion, to be nice to travelers. I really don’t know. The difference here is so striking. American Jews are gregarious to the point of being disconcerting; but Israelis — outside of Fred, and Riki, up in Tzfat (both of whom lived in the U.S. for years) — I can’t think of any other place outside of Russia where I have been glared at or ignored so uniformly, by people in such funny costumes. Even at the village near Cotonou, in Benin, where the guide assured us they hated beards, I didn’t feel this level of hostility.

We returned from the tour to Samer’s house. His uncle, who lives two houses away, has a garden beneath the house, and one of the people who were staying there asked if we could see it. He showed us around the fig and almond and olive and pomegranate trees, and confessed he hadn’t been in this garden for 20 years. Childhood memories started coming back to him: he showed us games he used to play, like connecting two olives with a leaf and balancing them on a twig, basically Jenga with plants. Later that evening, we talked about his life over some arak (Arabic for ouzo). As a teenager, he got a little antsy and his parents decided it would be better to send him to live with relatives in Greece for awhile, instead of making trouble in the West Bank. A few years later, he ran a store in a San Diego mall, and made friends with the owner of the adjoining shop, a former Israeli soldier. Now he lives back where he grew up, with his own family, and he and his four daughters would like to leave, but his wife for whatever reason wants to stay. So they do.

Friday morning we drove back to Jerusalem, and toured the Mount of Olives. (Denver has a Mount of Olives Cemetery, but I didn’t realize then that the real one in Jerusalem is where people especially wanted to be buried; I guess they were first in line for heaven, or something. The passport line, again.) The most interesting spots here were Church of Pater Noster, where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, which is displayed on the grounds in 170 different languages, including Maya, Quechua, Cherokee, Georgian in two different scripts, and many many more. The Garden of Gethsemane has some 2000-year-old olive trees, as old as the redwoods on Big Tree Way but much more contorted; olives are pruned to be spreading. And the Tomb of the Virgin Mary is a strange underground space full of chandeliers (with compact fluorescent bulbs) and religious icons.

We walked into the Old City, following many of the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa.  One of them led to a rooftop near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:  we noticed several tourists disappearing into an open door.  We followed them down some flights of stairs, past a little service in progress in the Ethiopian Monastery, and arrived in the courtyard of the Church, which is said to be built at the site of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified. There were two little chapels above the cross site itself, and another chapel, with a long line of people to go inside, that claimed to be the site of his tomb. As usual, the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics have their own version of all the places as well as their own version of all the dates, even if they are only a few meters apart. There were little services happening all over the place inside the church, and no one minded all the tourists milling around. I’m not particularly religious these days, but having grown up with Christmas and Easter it was pretty interesting to visit these sites. Afterwards, we headed to a little Armenian restaurant for an interesting dinner: dessert looked like a long sausage, but it was made out of grapes and nuts.

Saturday we had hoped to go up on the Temple Mount to see the Dome of the Rock and the outside of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Our Lonely Planet guide said it was open on Saturday, but the guard at the Western Wall Plaza entry point said it was closed on Friday and Saturday. Oh well. We improvised from there, seeing the Garden Tomb, a strange private protestant site presenting itself as another place Jesus’ cross and tomb might have been located; the Ethiopian Church, which reminded me of places I’d been in India: take your shoes off before going into a domed building containing a cubic building with an altar inside, with the floor covered with carpets, and the walls with religious paintings. One of the Ethiopian nuns was very excited to take our photo with one of the monks. Beards give you entry into all sorts of presumptions. We walked through the Old City to the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, a modern church built over what was explained as Caiaphas’ dungeon; all the statues outside, and the feel of the place, reminded me of the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County.

The Orange County analogy applies to most of Jerusalem. Except for a few bits here and there, it’s all very new, and that means Orange-County like. The Christian presence doesn’t go back very far, this time around. The YMCA building was built at the same time by the same guy as the Empire State building; the suburbs and settlements are all from the last thirty years, and all the holiest ancientest sites are covered over by big modern looking buildings that have scattered about them pieces of glass floor through which you may view the mosaics that were in place before the Saracens and earthquakes and new construction permits.

Then we took a taxi, expensive because it was Shabbat, to pick up our bags and go to another hotel to meet an economical airport shuttle which kept picking up people until every seat was filled before heading to the airport. The Ben Gurion airport is probably much more effective than the TSA in protecting the planes which leave from it, but the waits are very long and it seems arbitrary and inefficient. Someone talks to you, and decides whether to X-ray your checked luggage. The image determines whether your luggage will be opened, in front of you: a decorative plate we bought presumably contains lead, and seems to have caused them to want to look in its suitcase. After that, things are pretty normal and quick; we didn’t have to take off our shoes.


We learned about the history of the area and the description of what life is like for those who live here constantly over the course of the tour. I’ve summarized it here.

For over 100 years, this has been an area containing two nationalities. Jews and non-Jews have been living together more peacefully here than other places like, say, Western Europe. The current problems have been brewing for over 100 years, but really got going after World War I, when Jews from all over the world began crowding into the area.

  • 1917: Britain in the Balfour Declaration declared it to be “a homeland for the Jewish people, without prejudicing the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”. Right, like that can happen.
  • 1947: the arbitrary drawing of the lines defining Palestine, and evictions of non-Jews from most of what is now Israel into refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and elsewhere.
  • 1949: occupations by the Jordanians and Egyptians, which basically defined the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
  • 1967: Israel re-occupied all of that land in the Six Day War (no mention was made of Sinai, since we were focusing on the West Bank).
  • 1987: the first intifada begins after years of oppression, triggered by an action in the Gaza strip killing several Palestinians.
  • 1993: the Oslo accords, when the West Bank was divided into areas specifying where Israel controlled the civil population and where it didn’t. Yasser Arafat, feeling anxious to get back from Oslo, agreed to the plan, causing much upset among the population afterwards.
  • 2000: the Camp David talks of 2000, Bill Clinton’s last grasp at a legacy, when Ehud Barak presented a take-it-or-leave-it “negotiation” which gave Palestinians 90% of the land, but claimed a strategic 10% which effectively divided the West Bank into three noncontiguous areas. This time the offer was refused. A few months later, Ariel Sharon visits the Temple Mount, which starts a riot and the second intifada.
  • 2002: the West Bank barrier wall is begun. It does not strictly follow the 1967 borders, but rather cuts deeply into the West Bank. Further construction of the wall is accompanied by more confiscation of Palestinian land and building of settlements.

The West Bank continues to be classified as “occupied territories” because if it were annexed as part of Israel, legal precedent would require that all of the residents would become citizens. The legal shenanigans which Israel goes through to justify the actions it takes is well-explained in a film we saw at the SF Int’l Film Festival a few years ago, “The Law In These Parts”. It turns out that it will be shown as part of the POV series on PBS on August 19, and viewable online for the following month.  I’ve set up my TiVo to record it.

There was some frustration in 1993 that Yasser Arafat acceded to the accords which carved up the West Bank into “Area A” (cities under complete Palestinian control), “Area B” (villages under Palestinian civil control), and “Area C” (settlements, and open space, under complete Israeli control). In general, Palestinians who live in the West Bank can travel anywhere in it except settlements. They cannot enter Israel, including Jerusalem. Israeli Jews are officially not allowed to enter “Area A”, though it is quite easy to do if they want to. There are checkpoints which primarily monitor license plates, allowing movement of Israeli vehicles and restricting movement of Palestinian ones.  There are a few other classifications of non-Jews, such as “Jerusalem residents” and “Israeli Arab citizens”.

The “Area A” and “Area B” lines were drawn so that they enclosed existing Palestinian areas as tightly as possible; in general, a Palestinian cannot expand the community by building across the line into “Area C”. He cannot get a building permit to do that, and if he builds anyway, his house will be demolished as an example, usually around 2am, with mere minutes of notice. The Israelis also control water rights; our host explained that each house in a settlement gets a one-inch water pipe, while each Palestinian village gets a three-inch water pipe (which can move nine times as much water). Others cited statistics based on water per person, but for Palestinians it is “just barely enough, except when we turn it off”, and Israelis, it is “all you can drink and water your lawn with”. It is illegal for Palestinians to tap wells into the aquifers underneath their villages.

Any Jew in the world can decide to emigrate to Israel, and they will basically be given a place to live, for little or no cost, by the government. But non-Jews who were evicted from their homes at any point from the original partition to the current construction of separation walls don’t have that option. The government heavily subsidizes the construction of settlements, and rentals of the buildings built in them. It retains all control of water rights, airspace, and flow of capital and trade in the entire region. While Zionist zealots are often the ones who set up “outposts”, claiming new land for settlements, especially far from Jerusalem, the largest settlements set up by the government are close and well-connected to Jerusalem, and because they are so cheap to live in they are largely occupied by working-class Israelis.

The way the wall keeps growing and restricting the areas where Palestinians can be reminded me a lot of the lowly worker in “Office Space” who keeps getting moved into smaller and smaller offices, and ultimately into closets. (And then ends up blowing up the entire company. Our guide in Nablus is a nonviolent activist, but he supports the right of his oppressed brothers to resist in whatever way they think appropriate, including armed resistance.)

I wonder what it’s like to use a location-based dating app like Grindr in this area. Two people could start chatting and then discover that one is a settler and one is a Palestinian. Awkward.

One interesting fact that was mentioned was that despite the oppression, Palestinians are significantly better-educated than any other Arab country. Many of them study abroad, and many of them go on and teach abroad, including in the other Arab countries. (Of course, in order for them to study abroad, they will have to travel to Amman, because they can’t go to the Ben Gurion airport in Israel.)

The most common questions for all of the guides included “What do you think will happen?” and “What do you think should happen?” and “Will the peace talks make any difference?”. It seems unlikely that anything will happen in the short term because the maximum that Israel would be willing to offer is significantly less than the minimum that the Palestinians would be willing to accept. I did a web search for “Israel peace talks” and the amount of variance in the amount of optimism in the search results was amazingly wide: many are completely pessimistic, and several are remarkably optimistic. One of my favorite answers from the guides as to what an ultimate solution could look like would be a federation of two states, one primarily Jewish and one primarily Muslim, with Jerusalem as a capital of the federation in neither state, like Washington DC, with Arabs and Jews able to freely live or travel in either of the two states. It would still be quite a challenge for Israel to adapt its civil laws, which are so deeply based on religion, to accommodate a new reality with such increased freedom for non-Jews. They have also resisted providing compensation to refugees for their confiscated land, because this would amount to a confession that they actually did this.

The population in Israel and Palestine continues to grow by immigration and births. We were told of some settlers having 17 kids to try to keep up with Palestinian birthrates, which are about 4.5 children per woman. The true size of the Palestinian population is classified: Israel claims there are 1.5 million, and the Palestinians claim there are 2.5 million. Meanwhile, regardless of the apportioning of water between Israelis and Palestinians, the absolute amount of it available to the people in this area continues to decline. We kept asking, and no one really told us, how quickly the aquifers were sinking. Perhaps the information is classified as well. The Jordan River south of the Dead Sea is a trickle, much as the Colorado River is at the US/Mexico border. Here, as in many other places in the world, at some point not too long from now there won’t be enough for everyone, and perhaps at that point the real problems will begin.

While America has been firmly on the side of the Israeli government, sending it billions of dollars to support its apartheid schemes, and kowtowing to the Jewish lobby which labels anyone not doing exactly what Israel wants as anti-Semitic, one optimistic comment mentioned by a young Swiss leftwing activist I talked to was that there are a large number of young American leftwing activists in organizations such as “J Street” who might help swing the balance as people get older, much as the American population has become more accepting of issues such as medical marijuana and same-sex marriage as time has gone on.

May peace be with you all.



Seventeen Secrets

August 6th, 2013 2:54 pm by Dave and Ray

On our last day in Cyprus, we drove to Larnaca and saw a couple of Byzantine churches — a small one with an impressive mosaic, and a larger one with large amounts of gold trim around the icons. We returned the rental car, and were encouraged when the guy in the lot looked at the tire and said “it’s just a small hole”. This didn’t stop the people at the Sixt desk for charging 75 euros. One the one hand, I might have saved a bunch of money if I had our Airbnb host’s friend patch the tire; on the other, it was nice not spending a bunch of vacation time dealing with it.

Our official introduction to Israel was a huge mass of people at the passport line, not in several lines, not in one snaky line, but just a mass of people standing in front of five agent cubicles. Eventually, as everyone jockeyed for position and tried to pass others and avoid being passed, we reached separation walls which established an order for each of the cubicles. (It turned out that this “pushy” behavior is pretty representative of Israelis just generally, especially drivers.) When we finally reached the front of the mass about 25 minutes later, the agent’s main questions were what our relationship was and why we went to all the same places. Ray’s answer was “and all that.” We picked up the rental car. Did you know that the collision damage coverage on most US credit cards does not cover rentals in Australia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, and New Zealand? We didn’t. So we ended up using their coverage. They put little boxes in their cars that you have to type a code before the engine will start. Probably cuts down on thefts. We followed the instructions of the Google Maps app to get to our hotel, and parked in the underground lot at about 2 A.M.

Our hour-long experience of Tel Aviv consisted of the one corner the Rimonim Optima Hotel is on. There is a bank with an ATM, a juice place which not only squeezes oranges but juices a score of other fruits, and a bakery with excellent coffee and pastries and breads. Then it was back to Google Maps taking us out of town up to the village of Tzfat or Zefat or Safed or whichever of the many Romanizations of its name you’d like to use. Google likes Safed. We checked into the charming Safed Inn / Ruckenstein B&B, and chatted with the owner, who grew up in LA. Tzfat is pretty much the Sedona of Israel; there are many artists here expressing their Hasidic or Kaballah spirituality in painting and sculpture. Also, it’s elevated and not so boiling hot. The first gallery we found was called “Weapons and Puppies”, where the W was an upside-down golden arches. We went in, and saw the work of the owner and his wife. His work was all political and surrealistic and very Haight Street compared to the Carmel that was the rest of the town. Nothing on gallery row would offend your mother, or anybody’s. If we had a child, there were some very cute $1000 butterfly sculptures we could have decorated her room with. Riki, from the hostel, directed us to “Gan Eden” (Garden of Eden) where we filled up on appetizers: the cutest thing was that they used cinnamon sticks as the “skewers” in their fish kabobs.

Friday night is Shabbat and most Tzfat restaurants would be closed, so we thought it would be interesting to target Nazareth, which is largely Arab, as a place for dinner. After going back to Weapons and Puppies and getting a print and a t-shirt, we drove toward the Sea of Galilee and saw Tabgha, the church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, and Capernaum, home of St. Peter and scene of many miracles referenced in Luke. From there we saw a jet ski and several windsurfers on the sea. We continued to a bridge over the river Jordan, got out to take a look, and saw a dozen or so rafts paddling down the very still waters between the bulrushes. From there we drove to Nazareth, and saw the Basilica of the Annunciation, which is where Mary found out she was pregnant. The Basilica is a massive modern structure built over the historical site, with several mosaics contributed by Catholic communities from all over the world. This was the Roman Catholic Annunciation, by the way. The Greek Orthdox Annunciation took place a few hundred meters across town, and we didn’t have time to go there, though a couple of street Arabs told us how to poke our heads into the White Mosque briefly. We had early dinner at Rida Cafe, a very creative and wonderful place: Freekeh, which is a soup made from unripe wheat with spices, a smoky eggplant salad, some small tasty sausages, and a dessert they call “cream of seventeen secrets”. An hour drive back to Zefat, just like going home from Berkeley (where the roads in Nazareth are like 19th Ave with one lane at rush hour, and the other roads are like 92 going to Half Moon Bay).

Saturday we left our delightful B&B and explored two cities mentioned in the Bible but not known until recently to exist, Tel Hazor and Tel Megiddo, whose ruins are both national parks and World Heritage Sites. At Tel Hazor there was a volunteer leading a tour, who has himself participated in some of the digging, and found a cuneiform tablet, one of only 18 discovered so far at Tel Hazor. He suspected there was a huge cache buried beneath where we were talking and several meters in from the face of the current dig.

We learned that the Canaanite culture from the 18th to the 13th century BC somehow had the capability of cutting rocks with smooth edges, square corners, and round holes, including limestone and also basalt. One basalt slab standing on end made me think of 2001. Later, in the Israelite culture, they built on top of the Canaanite structure, but they hadn’t yet figured out how to make smooth slabs of rock, or even bricks, and just stacked up the rocks they find lying around. At the acropolis is evidence of destruction and a great fire, and our guy thought they did not happen at the same time. He thought that since the stones were only cracked on one side of the plaza, that indicated the other side had been destroyed previously and the rubble protected the basalt from shattering, which happens at 1100 C for basalt. Joshua might have had something to do with all this.

Tel Megiddo is the place where Armageddon will happen: it’s a larger site (at least the ruins are larger) and it boasts an impressive tunnel to bring water from a spring to the bottom of a vertical shaft about fifteen stories below ground: stairs go down the shaft, and you can walk through the tunnel. People living there could hoist water up the shaft from the inside: as the guide at Tel Hazor pointed out, having women carry water up from the bottom exposed them to attack which could threaten not only their water, but their women.

We found our hotel in East Jerusalem, then looked for dinner. As it is a Muslim area, everything is closed during the day for Ramadan, and we found a restaurant just after it opened after sunset. We walked back through a corner of the Old City.

Sunday, after some screwing around finding breakfast and narrowly avoiding a parking ticket (the machine didn’t work) we went back into the desert to the Dead Sea, where our first destination was Masada. Masada is a huge mesa where the Jewish rebellion against the Romans had its last stand in 74 A.D. The trail up the face of the mesa was closed to ascents because it was so hot: we took the cable car up. The top had many typical Roman ruins: little palaces, Roman baths. This one had a very extensive storage area for food, because it was so isolated and far off the ground. The Romans had abandoned it, the Jewish rebels moved in and fixed it up with their style of baths, and stayed as long as they could until the Romans came back and put down the rebellion for good. We could have taken the cable car back down, but decided to walk down the trail instead. Then we headed south to Mt. Sodom, and the pillar of salt known as “Lot’s Wife”, for a photo-op. We returned to Jerusalem and to the Hertz office just as it was trying to close — fortunately we didn’t have to take the car to the airport. Once again, it seemed hard to find places to eat: either it was Ramadan, or it was Sunday (just as restaurants in SF close on Monday, ones here close on Sunday, the day after the weekend) or we were in the wrong place. We finally found a neighborhood thick with them, and settled on a place which offered 10 little plates of salads, just like a Korean restaurant would. They also had merguez. Mmmm. As we walked home past the northern wall of the Old City, the streets were closed to cars, and thousands of people were streaming towards the Al-Aqsa Mosque for what we found out later was Laylat al-Qadr, a day near the end of Ramadan celebrating the revelation of the Kor’an to Muhammad by Allah. We heard there were 250,000 people praying there all night long.

And this brings us to Monday, the start of our four-day West Bank tour with Green Olive Tours. The guides are basically leftwing Israelis (for Israel, they’re pretty much the far left) who do not approve of how their government handles the population in the areas under its control. Since we don’t approve of this either, it seemed like a fun opportunity to be choir members to be preached to.

The Island Everyone Wanted

July 31st, 2013 9:05 am by Dave and Ray

We arrived in Cyprus on Friday night, rented the car, found the hotel, and ate at a generic chain restaurant on the strip of Larnaca beach restaurants. Relatively few wrong turns. The Palm Walk at Larnaca looks exactly like Ibiza, Newport Beach, or any other place where people come to get sunburned and drink and have sex. I wonder what will happen to these places when everyone realizes that being drunk is not all that neat except as a prelude to having sex, and they don’t want to have sex any more becuase the Internet is so much more satisfying?

On Saturday the tourist office fixed us up with maps and listings, and we set off along the south coast to see several sets of ruins. First we stopped at Choirokoitia, a Neolithic site with round houses and a defensive wall dating from 9000 BC. That’s a really long time ago! The other sites we visited were much more modern, consisting mostly of Roman ruins: Amathous was a fairly small area where a few pillars had been set up. Kourion was a very large site with a reconstructed theater, a villa with several mosaic floors, and a couple smaller houses with mosaics as well. From there we headed to the place depicted in the picture above, Petra Tou Romiou, the place where Venus, er, Aphrodite is said to have emerged from the ocean. Ouranous was ravishing Gaia when he was interrupted by his son Kronos, who “took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him.” These fell into the sea, surrounded themselves with foam, and from them emerged Aphrodite.

Now it is a popular swimming spot, especially for Russian tourists in Speedos.

We headed into Paphos, and hooked up with our Airbnb apartment. The apartment is in one of a two buildings, with more planned, by a local construction company. Perhaps you’ve heard things haven’t been going so well in the Cyprus economy, and the third building never got started. It has been very difficult to find people to rent or buy the apartments, and Airbnb has been something for them to do while they wait. Unfortunately it didn’t have an Internet connection, and we found ourselves choosing places to eat based on whether or not they did.

Sunday was spent in two sites located in the town: a large area called Kato Paphos, with many well-preserved mosaics, especially in the House of Dionysus; and the Tombs of the Kings, kind of a cemetery grounds for the 1% in the 3rd century BC, with several mausoleums carved into the rock near the shore. It is much easier to see the structure of 2nd and 3rd century houses from their imitations in graves, than from the reconstructions above ground.

On Monday we drove through Troodos, the highest mountains in Cyprus, and visited three Byzantine wooden-roofed churches. About five kilometers before reaching the first one, the car got a flat tire in a tiny village on a steep road, and a nice handball player stopped and helped us put on the temporary spare.

In Pedoulas, the Byzantine Museum was closed (because it was Monday), but the church of Michael the Archangel was open. It was a very small church, but the walls were covered with well-preserved frescoes. We continued to Moutoullas, where there was another church next to the village cemetery. It was locked, but a bus with a tour group from Spain arrived which had arranged with the local caretaker to open the church, so we got to go inside and see it. A little larger, the frescoes somewhat more damaged. The caretaker was impossibly old and wizened, and we ended up giving him a ride down the hill to his cottage after the tour bus had left, because he did not feel up to the walk. The towns in Troodos have a strong vertical component.

The third site, Kalopanagiotis, had a monastery with a museum. A monk spotted us and other tourists and opened the museum. A Russian family toured it with us. The church was scheduled to be opened at 4 P.M., so we retired to the cafe across the plaza to eat what amounted to a quesadilla, except it was in Greek, and drink lemonade. Something from the Disney Channel was on TV, dubbed. Without being confronted with what I am sure was horrible dialogue, I was free to evaluate the other aspects of the production. One little kid about eleven looks to be ferocious leading-man material in another decade. He was overplaying the part of a kid trying to act grown up toward an older girl, but he controlled his face and posture perfectly, and his sense of comic timing was absolute.

The monastery church was much larger than the others, and was actually in everyday use: it had a lot of stuff in it. There were a few post cards for sale, but you couldn’t take pictures. Someone will invent a periodic table of iconoclasm: where you are and are not allowed to take pictures, and why.

We hobbled on to Nicosia, which they call Lefkosia, and after much back and forth, met our Airbnb host on a street behind a church; he guided us to his place. The address defies looking up in any standard mapping program (perhaps we should have typed the name in Greek). It definitely did not help that Pocket Earth has that street misspelled, Lefkou Nastasiades instead of Lefkou Anastasiades. Airbnb hosts should be required to share GPS coordinates. Anyway, it’s a lovely two-bedroom flat with air-conditioned bedrooms, with WiFi! We had more traditional Cyprus food in the old town for dinner.

Tuesday morning was spent doing nothing, one of the few chances on this trip to rest. Vacationing is hard work.

Tuesday afternoon we drove into town, found a questionable parking place (Cyprus doesn’t really seem to enforce parking very strictly), and spent a couple hours in the Cyprus Museum looking at various artifacts, many from the sites we’d seen the two previous days. Some small figurines were the most fascinating: one from 3000 BC or so depicted childbirth with the mother leaning back on another person, and someone standing assisting in the delivery. The ones from 750 BC or so were quite finely executed.

The title of this post is the name of a children’s book for sale in the museum store. It refers to the repeated invasions of Cyprus by every tribe which ever had designs on the Mediterranean trade routes, which is all of them. Cyprus achieved independence in 1960. The British still control two little Guantanamos, one of which, called “Akrotiki”, we drove through on the way from Larnaca to Paphos. Not foresightful enough to mail a post card from there. It would have been much more expensive than Cyprus Post, which is 45 euro cents and a real bargain, if you’re just coming from northern Europe. So even though Heathrow is too unmanageable to fly through any longer, we did manage to dip into the British empire on this trip. The sun had not set, but it was a weekend.

Non-British Cyprus, as you know, is divided into two areas: the southern part, where we have been visiting, is the Republic of Cyprus and is ethnically Greek. The northern part is referred to by the Greeks as “Area Under Turkish Military Occupation Since 1974”, or by the residents as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. There is a thin DMZ, the “green line” between the two areas administered by the UN, which for some reason they don’t want you to take any pictures of. Nicosia is an old city whose core is surrounded by a circular city wall which looks cool on a map, or perhaps a satellite image; you don’t get the same impression seeing it up close. The “green line” goes right through the core of the city and was impassable for three decades after the Turkish invasion. But in 2003 or so, a crossing was opened up so that anyone with a passport or identity card can go to the other side.

A reporter who works for a North Cyprus newspaper told us that there were friends who hadn’t seen each other for thirty years, who greeted each other at the opening. “It was emotional,” she said. We talked to Ann for a long time, about elements of life and politics. One of many people we meet as a result of our having beards. You should have a beard when you travel, or at least a flat tire.

Our hosts have enjoyed going to the Turkish side, but they haven’t gone for awhile because their friends have traffic tickets which must be paid before they can return. We didn’t have traffic tickets there, so we crossed over for a couple hours and walked around. We saw a little exhibition where old people were invited to remember what used to be where the wall is now back before it was put up. The most interesting thing was an old Catholic church that was repurposed to be a mosque. The church faces East, but the direction to Mecca is 156°, almost south: the orientation of the patterns on the carpeting and the location of the minbar make it clear what direction to face once you get inside. (Like all Turkish mosques we’ve seen, anyone is allowed inside except during prayer time). Most of the larger Christian statues were removed from the ornamentation of the outside of the building, but some were so small and deeply integrated that they were left.

Tuesday night we ate at Souxou Mouxou Mandalakia, probably the best restaurant in Cyprus. We had a nice salad of assorted greens with a honey lemon dressing, instead of the Greek salad of tomatoes and cucumber and feta; scallops in orange juice sauce; and lamb shank on a celery root puree. The California cooking style with Greek chefs using Cypriot ingredients.

Today we will hobble back to Larnaka, find out how expensive it will be to return a rental car with a flat tire, and find out what the security experience is like for people traveling to Israel.

Friends in the Low Countries

July 26th, 2013 7:33 am by Dave and Ray

On Saturday, our last day in Dublin, we took the bus into town, and walked to a critically acclaimed coffeehouse (also recomended by a Dublinite we’d met) called The Fumbally, and had a most excellent and large breakfast: Green Eggs and Ham was simply eggs, avocado, and chorizo; a plate of bread with soft cheese and honey; a bowl of carrot soup, and a fruit and nut bar.

We spent some time at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the main cathedral for all of Ireland. Jonathan Swift served for many years as the dean there, and there were several monuments to him; he is buried there as well. The pews were very much like an airliner: first class pews faced towards the aisle, and behind Ireland’s coat of arms were seats for the President, with the seal of the presidency; the sun at various points shone directly on these emblems while we were there. Business class was another set of fenced-in cushioned pews facing forward; and economy were extremely simple chairs with handmade cushions for sitting or kneeling. The building has been there a very long time: Saint Patrick was there in 450 preaching at a well, some stone remains of which exist; documentation mentions a church there in 890; the current church was built in the 1200s. It’s been damaged over the ages by storm and fire; much renovation has been underwritten by Guinness over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.

From there, we returned to Chester Beatty Library, a building located at Dublin Castle housing books and other items collected by Mr. Beatty. He seemed to have a special fondness for religious texts: Christian, Muslim, Buddhist. The library exhibits many of the interesting items in some museum rooms, but you know that there must be thousands more books stashed away in the stacks. There were examples of styles of paper, styles of printing, styles of bookbinding; it was quite a beautiful presentation. Also Chinese snuff bottles. Collectors drift.

After some Japanese food which was nothing special, we returned to the hotel.

Early Sunday morning, we headed to the airport and checked in for our flight to Amsterdam. It was your basic domestic flight: as happened to Ray several years ago on US Airways, they only offered water as a purchase; I complained to the steward that that was a disgraceful practice. He said “we would have given you a complimentary cup”. Fine, but I would have had to beg. Harumph. We picked up the rental car and headed to Antwerp, finding our Airbnb accomodations for the evening, a room in a physical therapy student’s flat for $25. For that price, so what if the beds were small, one was a mattress on the floor, and the bedding was probably what he grew up with as a kid? We targeted a restaurant two kilometers away and saw a few closed Antwerp sights, including the very impressive cathedral with the sun setting on its intricately sculptured door. It has a very intricate steeple as well. We reached Fiskebar, a very popular fish place; on this very warm evening everyone insisted in sitting outside. While waiting, Ray took some pictures, including some of a good-looking guy smoking, who turned out to be our waiter taking a break. He wasn’t a model. In California, a hot waiter is more likely to be a model. We ordered a small seafood platter and a grilled fish. The platter had three oysters, probably 10 medium prawns, dozens of small clams, and two different sizes of sea snails: whelks, about two inches long and pointy, which were very easy to get out of the shell; and periwinkles, spherical about three-quarters inch in diameter, which were very difficult to coerce the meat out of. Ray managed to master the technique though, and probably got about 70% out, compared to my paltry 30%. We hadn’t really had them since 1987, and they were pretty fun.

Monday we went to this very silly little town called Dendermonde, because its city hall bell tower featured carillon concerts every day in July and August at lunchtime. It was located next to a large town square full of little restaurants with seats extending out into the square under shade umbrellas. The concerts were a bit cheesy, with hits like Blue Danube, House of the Rising Sun, When You Wish Upon A Star, and Sunrise, Sunset. The accordionists and violinist in town must not have respected them much either, because they felt free to drown out the carillon with their even cheesier fare.

All the cities we visited in Belgium had something called a “begijnhof”, medieval women’s spaces that featured (in the case of the Dendermonde beguinage) a small triangular park plot surrounded by rows of little attached houses where widows and unmarried women were encouraged by the church to live a bit like nuns, but without taking any vows. A small church was located in the middle of the plot. It was Monday and the museum was closed.

Monday is also the market day of that town and everything in the world was being sold on the blocked off streets. We had to park some distance away.  Many stores were also closed because of the holiday: Belgium had crowned a king the day before.

After we escaped Dendermonde traffic, we headed to the Atomium. The Atomium is a building I remember reading about as a child and I always was curious to see it. It was built for the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958 and is the only pavilion still standing from that exhibition. Burning Man isn’t the only wasteful art show. The Atomium was resurfaced with Stainless Steel in 2006 (The original was aluminum) for its 50th anniverary. It seems in very good shape. Only a couple of the balls have exhibits in them, either of art depicting the times it was built in, or of rave music. Others are available for private functions, and one has a forest of hanging beds which school kids sleep over in on special field trips.

We also went downtown and looked at the exteriors of a couple of Art Nouveau houses designed by Victor Horta. His museum was closed because it was Monday and the houses are mostly private residences and office buildings.

Then we headed to Ghent where our friend Sebastian from Germany was staying with his friends in order to go to the Gentse Feesten, ten days of many stages of many types of music, with lots of beer being served to anyone 16 or over, all pretty much around the clock. It was quite crowded and chaotic; at one point some drunk girls came up and hugged all of us. In any case, it was nice to see him and hang out with his friends. We drove to Brugge, found the right Ibis hotel, and settled in. It was an Ibis Budget hotel, which did not waste a single square foot of space.

Tuesday we walked around Brugge, seeing its begijnhof, then having a damn fine apple pie and a Belgian waffle. The cathedral we looked at had a lot of renovation going on, and its entrance fee was marked down to 2 euro. The Groeningsmuseum had many fine works of the Flemish masters, and kind of a silly exhibit of very modern work supposedly inspired by them. We went to a free harp concert which was quite soporific, and then headed to the farm village of Kruishotem, checking into a quirky little hotel called B Hotel, not terribly unlike B Movies. The receptionist was a character out of Office Space — fortunately not out of Psycho. The front door had no doorknob on the inside, and could only be opened to exit by pressing a button some distance away. I muttered to myself that that was bizarre, and he said, “Bizarre? Why is that bizarre?”

On the outskirts of the village, next to fields of wheat, oats, and corn, is the three-Michelin-starred Hof Van Cleve, widely acclaimed to be one of the twenty top restaurants in the world. We started out on the patio, where they served no less than five amuses bouches. They then invited us into the thankfully air-conditioned interior where they brought the delicious lobster and frog leg starters, the delicious green bean salad (with young almonds and slices of truffle), and the delicious pigeon and sweetbread main courses. The cheese cart arrived with only three cheeses: three years of Comte, St. Marcellin, and a Belgian blue cheese they scooped out of the round with a spoon. Two rhubarb desserts followed, then three petits fours, then a petit fours cart from which they seemed disappointed we only had room for one or two choices. I was afraid to get the bill, but the unknowns for the water, the wine pairings, and the dessert and cheese turned out not to be that much. I suppose they serve much cheaper wine for their pairings then they feature on their list, which had scarcely any bottles less than 100 euros.

Wednesday we returned to Antwerp and toured the cathedral, an amazingly huge space. It has a 100-year-old organ for 200-year-old romantic French organ music, and a 10-year-old tracker organ for 400-year-old baroque music. An adjoining chapel had a large golden ark on the altar, and some mysterious instrument I’m guessing was some kind of harpsichord. Another had the statue Our Lady of Antwerp. There were many large oil paintings of the Flemish masters positioned around the space, including Ruebens’ Descent from the Cross. One corner had thirty or so life-sized wooden figures with benches between them serving as confessionals.

We headed back towards Amsterdam, but just after crossing the Netherlands border, visited Baarle-Hertog, a group of 26 Belgian exclaves, pieces of Belgian land completely surrounded by Netherlands. One place we found was a piece of the Netherlands inside one of the Belgian exclaves. We mailed a letter from the Belgian post office and drove on to fill up and return the rental car. We found our way to Meininger Hotel, one train stop out of town, the local equivalent of a Japanese coffin hotel — an extremely narrow room houses Ray and me and our friend Philipp. But hey, for $25 euro per person, that close to Amsterdam, one cannot complain. It’s very modern and clean, and so what if there was no hot water this morning? It works great now!

We headed into town and met up with our friends Mike and Carla, who met us in Amsterdam for a day before spending five weeks in London. By the time our dinner table was finally available, Philipp had arrived from Berlin. Dinner ended up being a bunch of little snacks, but it hit the spot.

Thursday was our One Perfect Day In Amsterdam. Breakfast was at a place which featured coffee, fresh juice, and bagels all in the same place; it was all really good. The Stedelijk Museum is the modern art museum Carla and I visited in 1978, with a massive new wing added since then. There were many cute items all over the museum, including Ed Kienholz’ The Beanery, a tiny space one person at a time could squeeze into. It was a dusty old bar, where all of the patrons had clocks as faces, and there were FAGOTS STAY OUT signs posted. A soundtrack of old music and crowd foley played through the speakers. Musicians of a certain age will remember that on Janis Joplin’s album with Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cheap Thrills, the liner notes credit crowd noises to Barney’s Beanery. That album was recorded around 1967 and the Barney’s Beanery piece here dates to 1965; I wonder how many hours of Barney’s Beanery samples were drifting around the recording studios of California at that time.

The museum FOAM is a photography museum which had a large exhibit of Edward Steichen, a fashion photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair starting in the 1920s. After a walk in the large and crowded Vondelpark, making us wonder why no one was working on a Thursday afternoon, we arrived at Blauw, a really nice Indonesian rice table place. Four orders of rice table and one order of lamb was more than enough to feed six people, including Victor, a local documentary filmmaker who we’d met on the 2008 trip to the China eclipse.

Now we prepare to leave for Cyprus, just as northern Europe gets its drizzling rain back.

Highs and Lows in Dublin

July 20th, 2013 12:10 am by Dave and Ray

The Chicago Airport is nothing if not consistent. From the time Ray’s plane from Tampa pulled up to the gate to the time he got off the plane, walked to the tram between terminals, got to Terminal 5, got through the long security line, and got to the departure lounge for our flight, 64 minutes had passed. It took me 63 minutes to do the same thing coming from San Francisco.

I need to take back, or rather amend, what I have said about airbnb being unreliable and difficult, because in this trip already I have had reservations made on and rip themselves out from under me. In Dublin: The gal at Acara House B&B wrote to me a couple of days ago saying that her daughter was coming to stay with her and therefore the room I had reserved was no longer available, and I could go to Bradoge House which she would arrange if I wrote back and acknowledged this change, which I did. On the website for Bradoge house I found it was at 221 New Cabra Street, and even though the map on the website didn’t have a dot on it showing the hotel, who worries about a broken website?

We got to Dublin at 4:40 AM Thursday, got our passports stamped in a short line and waved past customs entirely along with the whole rest of the plane — so nice to be in a country that isn’t at war with the entire world — and after some consideration decided to splurge on a taxi to 221 New Cabra Street, which Garmin, Google, and the Taxi driver couldn’t find. And Bradoge House didn’t answer their phone.

The taxi driver let us off just north of the river where I made an angry phone call to Elizabeth Jones, she of Acara House, who was so apologetic that she would not hang up for apologizing; I couldn’t get a word in for the last five minutes which cost us who knows how much in foreign telephone fees but she did not do anything so apologetic as, say, driving to get us and take us to Bradoge house. She said it was too early.

The humblest little Indian immigrant in every America’s Best Value Inn knows that being available 24 hours a day is part of being in the hotel business. I have expressed my disapproval in Tripadvisor and to Venere. We sat in a Burger King using their WiFi to find a new hotel. Dublin is packed full this weekend. We got a room at the Beresford Hotel for last night and a Travelodge by the airport for tonight and tomorrow.

And Beresford gave us a room right away (at 7am) so instead of having to sleepwalk through Dublin until the room was available, we were able to take a nap until midday. Dublin hotels don’t have air conditioning: the fog usually does that. But it has been sunny here for the past three weeks, which is unusual, around 30 degrees, hotter than for the last seven years.   Our room was pretty hot:  they gave us fans, which helped a lot. When we arrived, two things failed right away: my belt and the GPS; we bought a new belt, and removed all waypoints, allowing the GPS to start up, so all is well there.

So finally about 2pm we started walking around, and had a nice snack at “brother hubbard” which an Irish guy we met a few years earlier had recommended. I have mixed feelings about reviewing them for TripAdvisor. Popularity might result in their becoming a chain. As it is they are really good and the staff is lovely and as we dug into the pulled pork sandwich I reflected that it was the first good thing that had happened in Dublin.They had programs for Gaze, an upcoming Dublin lesbian and gay film festival, which had a few films we’d seen at Frameline a few weeks ago but also had many films that hadn’t shown there.

We suddenly decided on the ten Euro tour, leaving in 2 minutes, of Trinity College which somehow supports 17000 students in a tiny campus. The guide was a recent graduate of that institution who will make a good barrister as he has an excellent speaking voice and a great familiarity with the facts he is called on to explain a dozen times a day. Trinity first admitted women in 1904 and the college head resigned and died. The ball outside of Berkeley Hall is the same artist as did the balls at UC Berkeley and the Vatican and the Berkeley is the same Berkeley, as well. The two Oregon maples are among the largest in Europe. I’m sure a lot of it is in Wikipedia but Wikipedia isn’t as good-looking as Henry Barrow.

On our trip in 2004 we’d tried to see the Book of Kells, but the line to get in was two hours long. This time it only took a few minutes, and we saw the exhibition, peeked at a couple pages of the book itself, and visited the Old Library.

We walked through St. Stephen’s Green, and noticed a statue of Robert Emmet, erected by the Robert Emmet Statue Committee. It’s good that a KFJC DJ has attained the stature to be memorialized several thousand miles away. The statue is a copy of one in Washington D.C., and Wikipedia tells me there is another copy in Golden Gate Park, at the Academy of Sciences.

After that we drifted north through the international tourist quarter Temple Bar. You would be hard challenged to distinguish it from Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco unless the photo were zoomed out enough to include major bits of Dublin skyline. The shops are the photonegative inverse of the Barbie aisle at Toys R Us: everything pink has been replaced by green.

Dinner was at the Winding Stair, which is also a bit hard to find as the map services disagree where 40 Ormond Quay is. We did find it and it was pleasantly packed and the food was pleasantly good. The chowder was more like a white cioppino. There were eleven mussels, hard to share evenly. The lamb and polenta were huge and made me happy we are only ordering one main course these days. The pear ginger cake with rum raisin ice cream — the pear got lost I’m afraid but it’s not really pear season anyway.

Friday we checked out of the Beresford, left the bags at the front, and found a place with fresh-squeezed juice next to a nicer place with coffee and pastries, and lots of table space to write postcards. Then we went to the National Museum, Archaeology, to see the “bog people”, unfortunates who had been killed and thrown into the bog, only to be preserved over a period of several thousand years. One placard explained that there was a custom that commoners kiss the king’s nipples: some of the bog people had had their nipples cut off so they could never be king. There were many other gold and stone artifacts as well.

While we were in the museum I noticed that the single pair of travel pants I have on this trip, in their “short” configuration, had ripped, up the leg. So the next ultra-important mission was to find a place to get new ones. I found some functionally equivalent ones, though more expensive and a little less roomy somehow — all the pockets are smaller. Lots of guys are wearing camo cargo shorts — maybe I should just look for some of those.

Then we took a walk in Iveagh Gardens, two-thirds of which unfortunately was closed. We sat in the shade for awhile and watched a guy do yoga and a bunch of kids swing from a tree.

Our next destination was Chester Beatty Library, and as we approached it, a woman called out “Dave and Ray!” It was our wonderful friend June who I’ve known since 1976, and was there with her husband for an urban planning conference at the end of a seven-week European trip. This meeting was completely unplanned, and instantly changed the agenda of the day — of course we all hung out together for the seven or so hours we all had left together. This included visits to a temporary location of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (not unlike SFMOMA’s temporary locations for the next three years), and to the National Gallery. Plus we saw Oscar Wilde’s statue in Merrion Square.

They had dinner plans with friends which we decided to crash. These plans turned out to be at Winding Stair, the place we’d eaten the night before. So we went back. The staff grudgingly increased the table for eight to a table for twelve (two others had added themselves on as well), and we had the opportunity to sample many different things from the same interesting menu as the night before. Tonight’s most spectacular success was a plate of various smoked fish, though everything was delicious.

Now we’re at the Travelodge: we declined buying their WiFi service, but amazingly, the voucher we’d gotten for free at Beresford still works here, since they’re both provided by the same company.  Tomorrow we’ll give Chester Beatty Library another try.


July 15th, 2013 8:08 am by Dave and Ray

We are taking a hot summer trip to the Aegean and Adriatic.  Cyprus, site of the birth of Venus; Israel, whose stamp may go in our passports which expire next year; two islands in Greece featuring early relics; the former Yugoslavia, full of castles and energy; and Venice, home to a film festival and an art festival in September.  In the coming weeks, we will post things which happen to this weblog.