Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Barcelona Third Day Gaudi Park

Our final day in Barcelona, we discovered that taking the bus is dirt cheap.  We used our passes and took one all the way to Gaudi Park.  This is where Gaudi and another man had planned a neighborhood.  In the end, all the exists there is Guadi's art and the house he lived in until his death.

Really, his art speaks for itself.  It is so unusual, almost as if Gaudi had glued shards of broken pottery together.  Yet there is order and beauty in what he made.

The following photos are of Gaudi's residence.  Below is his bed.

In his room he had a place for his own private worship.  Gaudi was devoutly Catholic and it is impossible to separate his art from his intense and passionate religious beliefs.

The outside of his house.

And we come at last to the end of our trip.  Twenty-one days in Europe.  When will that ever happen again?  

I'm glad you asked.  It just so happens that I will be spending my honeymoon biking along the Rhine River in Germany this July.  Hee....hee...hee... Stay tuned....

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Matsuo Basho

I love Japanese Haiku and ordered this book thinking I was getting a collection of Haiku.  While there is no shortage of Haiku in the book, it is actually a travelogue that Matsuo Basho recorded through his companion secretary, Sora,  about his travels across Japan on a spiritual journey.

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is considered the greatest of the Japanese haiku poets.  Zen Buddhism was a leading influence in the school of poetry he founded. According to the back of the book, these travel sketches are his bid to "discover a vision of eternity in nature and the ephemeral world about him."

Basho's poetry is beautiful.  The imagery of nature it creates evokes a sense of peace.  His elegant writing enables the reader to vicariously experience his observations as he wanders through forests, up mountains, visiting Buddhist shrines and friends.

Stretching by force
The wrinkles of my coat, 
I started out on a walk
To a snow-viewing party.

Deep as the snow is, 
let me go as far as I can
Till I stumble and fall, 
Viewing the white land scape.

I am a visual person and it's hard for me to imagine what people write or say.  That is probably why I enjoy stories with character studies or that explore ideas with minimal descriptions.  The people in the books I read always are faceless.  That makes it all the more remarkable that Basho's writing communicates clear pictures in my head of what he himself saw and experienced.

Searching for the scent 
Of the early plum, 
I found it by the eaves
Of a proud storehouse.

Poems composed in a field: 

Dyed a gay colour
My trousers will be 
By the bush-clovers
In full bloom.

In mid-autumn
Horses are left to graze
Till they fall replete
In the flowering grass.

Bush clovers, 
Be kind enough to take in 
This pack of mountain dogs
At least for a night.

I have studied Buddhism, but my fiance, Joshua,  explored Buddhism before becoming a Christian.  I was curious about what attracted him first to Buddhism and how he later came to embrace Christianity. 

For Josh, Buddhism touched upon the truth that the world is  transitory and the desires of the world an illusion.

But when rockets were flying over his head in Afghanistan, Josh realized that Buddhism did not provide the answers looming death demands.  He came to the conclusion that Christianity provides answers not only to the meaning of life, but hope after death.

How Buddhism stands in stark contrast to Christianity struck me when reading two incidents recorded in Basho's book.  Towards the end of the book Basho attends a shrine before embarking on his return journey. There he meets two prostitutes.  They are also trying to find their way home.  Each night they sleep with different men in order to pay for their journey. The two women approach Basho and beg him to let them follow him.  With tears in their eyes they say to him:

If you are a priest as your black robe tells us, have mercy on us and help us to learn the great love of our Savior.

After a moment's thought Basho replies to them:

I am greatly touched by your words, but we have so many places to stop at on the way that we cannot help you.

After he leaves them, he thinks of a haiku and has Sora write it down.

Under the same roof
We all slept together,
Concubines and I-
Bush-clovers and the moon.

But the incident that upsets me every time I think about it is one on which he writes at the very beginning of his journey.  He comes across a small child, standing by himself on the road, crying.  He has been abandoned by his parents.  The wailing of this child moves Basho to share some of his food with him.  But he walks away, saying to the child, your cries must reach heaven.  Only heaven can hear you. 

And on he continues with his journey, leaving the child alone on the road. 

I know that Buddhism requires emotionally detaching oneself to this world, but I can only view such indifference to a helpless child's desperation as cold-heartedness on the lowest reptilian level.

It renders all his beautiful words and exquisite imagery hollow.  He enjoys nature and ponders eternity, but refuses to offer hope or assistance to desperate women or an abandoned child?
It calls to mind the final judgement in the last verses in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter  25:

43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”  (From BibleGateway, ESV)

I hope to collect more books on haiku.  I can enjoy the poetry even if I can't accept the religion behind it.

Portrait of Matsuo Basho from the Osaka Museum

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

I recently read an article in the New Yorker about one of their writers from the fifties.   Maeve Brennan wrote a series of articles for their paper called The Long Winded Lady:  Notes from the New Yorker which has been compiled into a book.  The article compared Brennan to James Joyce in her ability to capture the essence and flavor of her native Ireland in her stories.  In fact, the writer of that article quotes several Irish authors who considered Brennan as taking up Joyce's mantle.  This piqued my curiosity and as a result, I've bought a few of her books.

The first one I have finished is called The Visitor.  The story is told in third person from the view point of the protagonist.  The story begins with a young lady on a train.  She is heading back home to Ireland.  The woman, Anastasia King,  has been living with her mother in Paris for the past six years.  Now that her mother has died she is returning home to Ireland to live with her grandmother.

When she arrives at her grandmother's house she comes to know that her grandmother doesn't want her there.  The story unfolds slowly like a blooming flower on a timed camera.  Bit by bit, the reader becomes aware of the facts.  Anastasia's mother deserted her father who died broken-hearted.  Anastasia, at the age of fourteen, chose to leave with her mother.  They both stayed in Paris until her mother's death.

The grandmother cannot forgive her daughter-in-law.  She does not want her granddaughter there as a sore reminder of painful circumstances.

But more than that, the grandmother wants simply to live in the past.  She's kept her son's room as a perpetual shrine to him. 

Through glimpses of conversation both present as well as remembered conversations, we come to understand that the grandmother wielded a lot of influence over her son.  She viewed her daughter-in-law as competition and was careful to hold her in contempt.  Her son took his cue from his mother and treated his wife contemptuously as well.

Anastasia's mother comes across as delicate and extremely sensitive.  Eventually she runs away to escape her mother-in-law's dominion. 

Even so, no one is caricatured.  The grandmother is a human being with several sides to her rather than simply an ogre. She is not heartless.  She cares about her granddaughter and will always provide for her.  But she wants her to return to Paris.   I can't judge her bitterness.  If someone left me without bothering to contact me for six years until they had no other place to go, I would be a little hesitant to welcome them back into the fold as well.

This raises a question, however.  Was Anastasia really so self-absorbed?  She was very young when she left with her mother.  Did her mother hold some kind of sway over her that prevented her from contacting her father or grandmother?

While Anastasia wanders around her hometown, and going to church she sees her mother.  She sees her walking near her.  She sees her kneeling in the church in a pew in front of her.  Is she mentally unstable?  Is she seeing a ghost?  Because the story is narrated from Anastasia's point of view, we don't know.

Throughout the story, the Irish culture permeates each page.  Reading the book, one has entered into Ireland, into an Irish family-at least one from the 1930's.  One sees how the Catholic faith is a strong, integral part of the culture.  How family relations affect each life.

There is a side story of a family friend whom Anastasia visits.  This woman, Miss Kildare, tells Anastasia her story.  She spent her entire life caring for her sickly mother.  She met a man and fell in love with him but her mother refused to sanction the marriage.  So they never married but they did continue to see each other in secret.  The man even gave her a ring.

Tragically, the man is killed and the woman, with no one else in her life, cares for her mother until her death.  Miss Kildare is now elderly and sick  but with no one to care for her.  She knows she is about to die.  The woman asks Anastasia to place on her finger- after she is lying in her coffin- the ring the man gave her.

The Visitor story is really about human loneliness.  Brennan shows four different women and their loneliness: Anastasia, her grandmother, the family friend and, indirectly through Anastasia's reflections, her mother. Each has different reasons for being lonely but the result is the same.  At the same time each woman possesses a spirit that refuses to be defeated.  It turns what might otherwise be a dreary story into a sweet, melancholy one. 

I agree that Brennan is able to capture the Irish spirit through her writing. Even though she died unknown, her work is making a comeback.  I look forward to reading other books by her as well.  

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Barcelona: Second Day

Our hostel was in a large stone building in the center of downtown Barcelona.   This is where our building and the next one came together.  Our building must have existed before the other building, which would explain why our hostel had windows opening up to walls.

Luckily our room had a balcony and a view of the street.  Above is our balcony from the street.

Today we were determined to exert ourselves only as much as it took us to walk to the beach.  On the way, we stopped at a small shop.  The owner, an Indian, immediately approached us and spoke to us in German then French before trying English. Hitting upon the correct language, he began describing, in flawless English tinged only with a slight eastern accent, his wares.  I noticed he did this with anyone who walked in.  I was impressed with his fluency in multiple languages.  I'm sure it helped his sales.

I'm also sure his aggressive, "I will sell you something even if I have to promise my firstborn to you" sales strategy helped as well.  I saw a pair of salt and pepper shakers made out of porcelan covered in a Gaudi mosaic design.  They were shaped like two people embracing each other.  They were so charming that I was determined to buy them.  After I returned from the beach.

The man was equally determined that I buy them before I left his shop.  "Those are fifteen euros."

Fifteen euros?  That was fair.  I was definitely going to buy them, but I was not going to lug them to the beach. 

I said, "Thank you.  I will come back later and buy them."

"Twelve euros!" The man said.

"Yes.  I want them.  I will come back and get them."

"Ten euros.  Here, you take them now."

"I will return this afternoon and get them. I'm going to the beach and I don't want to bring them there."

I held up my towel and bag as proof.

"You may have these for eight euros.  Take them now!"  He put them in my hand.

Hmmm...."I'll take them now for five euros."

"You may have them for six euros."

Lisa and I soon left the store and made our way to the beach.  Me holding not only my towel and bag but some carefully wrapped porcelain figures.

These are scenes of our walk to the beach through the Parc de la Ciutadella

Barcelona has its own Arc de Triomf.  Not as big as Paris's Arc de Triomphe, but still impressive. Barcelona's Arc de Triomf (Catalonion spelling) was built as the main access to the World Fair in 1888.
Detail of the Arc de Triomf.  I don't know what the bat signifies.

Man performing on his self made cello at the foot of the Arc de Triomf

I had to print this  photo in its original size so you could see the joy in this little boy's face.  I know it's not centered but it's worth it.
Ethan wasn't much for photographs
This is where we spent our second day in Barcelona.  Derek and Ethan disappeared down to a deserted part of the beach while Lisa and I vegetated in this spot.  

The fair city of Barcelona is glad to provide facilities for all, including the less modest.  Hence the "open air" urinals.

At night we went to the Catalan National Palace which is now the Museum of National Art.  I really wanted to go into the museum, but it was closed.  So instead we watched the water show below.

Thus endeth our second day in Barcelona.  The next we had recovered our energy and were ready to see the town.

 My hard won salt and pepper shakers.  The design is taken from Gaudi park which I'll show next time.

Arc de Triomf

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Arrogant Years: One Girl's Search for Her Lost Youth From Cairo to Brooklyn by Lucette Lagnado

Lucette Lagnado wrote an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about the current push in certain academic circles to boycott Israel for all its crimes against humanity, specifically its treatment of  Muslims.  Her article was well-written and deftly addressed this latest trend among the "intellectuals" of our time to vilify one group of people while blithely ignoring the the atrocities committed by another.  There's a verse in the Bible that speaks of "straining a gnat and swallowing a camel."  It's not used exactly in this context, but it fits.

At any rate, this article sparked an interest as to who the writer was.  I looked her up and found she had written a couple of memoirs.  Her first book, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, focuses on the life of her father.  This second one, The Arrogant Years, centers around Lagnado's relationship with her mother and her own coming of age in an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn.

I love to read about cultures and communities other than my own and Lagnado's book provides the reader with a rich, colorful account of life in an Old World household.

The book starts in the first half of the twentieth century in Egypt with her grandmother.  A small, nervous woman who had known wealth and status until her husband deserted her, spent her days sitting on the balcony of her small apartment drinking Turkish cafe and reading innumurable books.  She endowed this habit to her daughter Edith, Lucette's mother.  When Edith wasn't going to school she stayed by her mother's side on the balcony watching the busy streets below while drinking coffee and reading.

The book at this point digresses to fill in the background of the contemporary political climate of Egypt when Lagnado's mother and grandmother were young.  Jews played a prominent role in Egypt's government affairs.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived peaceably together.  Her mother eventually got a job teaching at a prestigious school and received the special patronage of the wife of the Pasha -an important government consulate.  As a result, she gained access to the Pasha's library, a treasure trove of thousands of books.  This was Edith's paradise. 

Eventually, Edith gave up her work, her friendship with the Pasha's wife, and her beloved library and, at her mother's insistence, got married.   In Egyptian-as well as Orthodox- culture this meant quitting work and staying home to raise a family.  Ms. Lagnado presents this as a sad development because now, instead of receiving daily intellectual stimulus and the reward of exercising her own teaching gifts, Edith became confined to a household, married to a man who spent his time carousing and socializing.

Edith now had the financial security her mother desperately wanted for her, but at the price of personal fulfillment.  At least this is how Lucette Lagnado describes it.  She was a baby when they left Egypt.  I wonder if this is how Ms. Lagnado's mother described her life (anybody who's stuck home raising children has to be miserable, right? ) or the conclusion she forms based on what her mother or others told her.

It didn't matter because by the 1950's, life changed for everyone  in Egypt with the rise to power of Gamal Abder Nassar and militant Islam.  Jews were ejected from every  walk of public life.  Finally, as with most of the other Egyptian Jews it was necessary for the Lagnado family to move. 

Many Jews moved to Europe and Israel.  The Lagnados moved to the United States and settled in an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York.

This is where Lucette's own memories serve as the basis for her memoir.  She describes her growing up in a Orthodox neighborhood, the different personalities that made up the membership of her synagogue and her defiance at religious traditions that separated men and women and assigned them to rigid roles.

Her family lost the wealth and status they enjoyed in Egypt. They now struggled to make ends meet.  Her dad spent his days trying to sell men's ties in subways, but finally gave up in the end, a defeated man.  He does not enter much into the story.  Perhaps because he detached himself from his family.  Maybe because her previous book centers around him.

This did not, however, dampen her mother's spirit.  She was determined to make sure her daughter got the right type of education.  Lucette describes her mother in loving terms as a resourceful, energetic and unrelenting person who was determined to make Lucette the person she had failed at becoming.  Lucette's older sister had already abandoned ship, shed her Jewish identity, and had moved beyond the borders of the narrow boundaries of their Orthodox community.  Edith's entire hopes and dreams were planted firmly on Lucette's shoulders.  Edith depended on her "Lou Lou" to reconstruire le foyer (rebuild the hearth), an expression Edith often repeated to her daughter.

I wished that Ms. Lagnado had spent more time writing about her brothers and sister but they are mentioned only peripherally in her book.  I wondered if her sister ever returned to her roots or did she stay away.  I don't know if the brothers left.  They don't seem to have stayed Orthodox.  Perhaps they chose to be culturally Jewish but no more.

Lucette, even though she rebelled at her mother's ambitions, did receive a private education and ended up going to Vassar.  This chapter of her life details her culture shock as for the first time she leaves her community and is exposed to people of other religious and economic backgrounds.  She was surprised to discover that Vassar didn't serve Kosher food.  When she asked, they tried to accomodate her, but it made her feel even more different than the other students.

Lagnado bounces back and forth between her struggle to fit into a society that makes her feel foreign and out of place and the tenacity of her mother.  After her children are raised and living with a husband who has checked out on life, Edith gets a job at the Brooklyn Public Library.  Once again she is surrounded by her favorite friends, books.  Unlike Lucette, Edith seems to have no difficulty merging with the ethnic diversity in her work environment.  She spends her days working hard and developing friendships with men and women from various cultural backgrounds.

The overall tone of the book is sad.  Lucette never seems to gain a sense of belonging.  The Orthodox upbringing that she fought against- or at least its chauvinism-turns out to be her refuge against an alien world.

At university Ms. Lagnado resents her fellow students whom she refers to as "WASPs"(White Anglo Saxon Protestants) because of their dominate culture and wealth.  A sullen tone pervades the chapters of her college life.   It gives the reader the impression that she somehow feels that an apology is owed to her by the WASPs.  As though they are responsible for making her feel different or for the fact that her family didn't have as much money.

Yet as she tracks the lives of the people in her childhood neighborhood, she shows that none of them stayed. They all moved on.  Most acquiring their own wealth and education.  Her brothers and sister, as well as herself, all prospered materially. She follows her friends, members of her synagogue, to wealthy Bronx neighborhoods, upscale estates or to Israel.  Her neighborhood is a good example of the typical upwardly mobile families that dominated our country before the welfare system caused economic stagnation and generational poverty.

 Even though I enjoyed this book, the tone is a melancholy one.  Ms. Lagnado doesn't end the book with any feeling of resolution.  She doesn't impart an attitude that she has finally made sense of her life.

 Lucette is devoted to her Orthodox upbringing and even though she challenged some of the beliefs, she finally chooses to return to Orthodoxy. Orthodox Judaism colors and shapes her identity.  But one thing stood out to me. Lucette is devoted to the Orthodox traditions and liturgy, yet still remains a stranger to God.  God is not mentioned much, except as Someone far away and uninvolved.

She ruminates on the Messiah.  She once had great hopes for His coming.  But as she looks back at history and around at the present, she decides there really is no Messiah.

This is especially interesting to me since, as a Christian, our whole religion is centered around Messiah.  I believe her conclusion is based on a misunderstanding as to who Messiah is.  Her idea of a Messiah is someone who is going to exclusively save the Jews from physical persecution.  In her mind this Messiah never came when the Jews needed Him and now there really is no need for one.

She discounts that everyone still dies and that the Bible makes it clear that death is caused by sin.  Therefore, Messiah is necessary because sin exists as a barrier between God and man and causes eternal death. This is still a problem which needs to be resolved. What mankind still needs to be saved from. Christians see this accomplished when Jesus Christ sacrificed himself and replaced the animal sacrifices that the ancient Jews practiced as a covering for their sins.  And it's not an exclusive salvation.  It's offered to everyone under the sun. Hence, if we accept this offering, we are saved from eternal death and into eternal life, even if we die physically.

There is another reason I found Ms. Lagnado's memoir so interesting.  Her self- identity rooted in her Orthodox culture is in sharp contrast to my own.  As a Christian I don't worry about cultural identity or preserving my traditions.  Someone from China or Nigeria or anywhere in the world, who shares my faith is every bit my brother or sister as anyone who grew up a "WASP" like me.

The other reason I enjoyed this book is because Lagnado successfully paints a beautiful, if sad, picture of the history of, not only her own family's story, but of many people: Jews, Coptic Christians and Muslims.  I recommend this book to people like me, who love try to gain an understanding of someone else's perspective on the world and who enjoys learning about the life stories of others, regardless if-or especially because- their ethnicity and beliefs differ from their own.

Further links:
Washington DC Jewish Community
NY Times Lagnado review
Jewish Book Council

Monday, March 17, 2014

Final destination: Barcelona

Hostel in Barcelona
We left Paris at four in the morning.  We took a taxi to the airport only to find out that RyanAir insisted that we should have printed out our boarding passes prior to coming to the airport.  We didn't do this so had to pay TWICE for our tickets.  The trick is they only send you the boarding pass twenty-four hours prior to your boarding and even though we had a computer we didn't have a printer.  Also, Lisa's carry-on bag that had been passed on every other airline we took, was deemed too big by RyanAir's standards.  She got to pay an extra $100.00 for that.  The moral of the story is: yes RyanAir is much cheaper than the other airlines but you better make sure you follow their guidelines or it will not be cheaper.

Lisa and the boys graciously let me sleep on the full bed (in the first photo) while they slept on the bunks.  I think Lisa was trying to make it up to me after persuading me to take a taxi to our hostel.  I showed my dark side when I found out that not only could we have taken a train for a fraction of the cost, but that, according to the pretty young Czech girl who welcomed us to the hostel, the taxi driver over charged us by a good twenty Euros.

The following photos are the view outside our hostel in downtown Barcelona

By the time we reached Barcelona we were little more than slugs.  It had been a phenomenal trip, but everyone has their saturation point. We'd see a Cathedral and shrug our shoulders.  Eh, they're all alike.  This isn't true, but being travel weary we had very little ability to appreciate much else.

I can now see the beauty in this Spanish style church which, as with all the other churches, has its own unique beauty in design.  At the time I was at the tail end of my traveling endurance.

Close up of one of the many churches in Barcelona

The famous Sagrada del Familia  by Antoni Gaudi

I had seen photos of Gaudi's Basilica de la Sagrada Familia.  It reminded me of mud castles on the beach.  When I saw it in person my eyes popped out and my jaw dropped, like a Warner Brothers cartoon.  Instantly, I became a disciple of the art of Gaudi.  This was the last European cathedral we saw and I must say it was different than any of the others.  That's saying a lot because each cathedral was unique in its grandeur, awesome architecture and breath taking beauty. 

Even though we tend to call the gigantic church structures across Europe cathedrals, the term applies only to churches that are the seat of a Bishop.  La Sagrada Familia is not, strictly speaking, a Cathedral.  In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI consecrated it and made it a minor basilica.  For those of you wondering, basilica is a Catholic church that a Pope has accorded special privileges.  There are only four major, or papal, Basilicas in the world.  Sagrada Familia is one of the many minor basilicas.   However, for convenience sake, I'm going to continue calling Sagrada Familia a cathedral since that is how it is commonly known.

While most cathedrals were built during the middle ages, Sagrada Familia was started in 1882.  The architect, Antoni Gaudi, began work on it in 1883.  His work is classified as a part of the Art Deco period, although he combined Art Deco with Gothic design.  This makes the design of Sagrada Familia unique from the other cathedrals. 

What overwhelmed me was the seemingly infinitessimal detail in the decoration of the outside of the church.  As a devout Christian, it was Gaudi's intent to illustrate the entire gospel on all the outside walls of the church.  He arrived at the building site every morning and led the workers in prayer before they began construction.

This part of Sagrada was built by Gaudi's successor, Josep Maria Subirachs.  His modernist approach sharply differs from Gaudi and it is easy to discern which sculptures were created by Gaudi and which by Subirachs.

Subirachs sculpted the passion of Christ on the front side of the church.

The photos below are Gaudi's designs.

Gaudi sculpted the nativity on the side of the cathedral opposite to Subirachs' Crucifixion of Christ

The best way in the world to end a long day is to relax in front of La Sagrada Familia with a glass of Sangria.  Lisa and I did this every evening we were in Barcelona.

La Sagrada Familia at night.

Park near La Sagrada Familia

Thus endeth our first day in Barcelona.  Tomorrow: the beach.