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.