POSTCARD FROM LATVIA & COPENHAGEN


It has been quite a while since I posted here, and a lot has happened since then. I’ve written three separate “postcards” of this year’s travels, and what follows is the details of the first of our trips. Hope you enjoy it.

POSTCARD FROM LATVIA AND COPENHAGEN

A poet once described Norway as “the land that laughs with flowers.” Had he visited Latvia, he might have written “the land that sings with its people.” As I was soon to discover, a song is never far away from a Latvian heart.
This was my first visit to Miki’s ancestral homeland. Though she was born and grew up in Chile, both her parents were Latvian, her father being one of eleven children (if you didn’t count the two who died shortly after birth.) As you might imagine, this provided a very large number of first cousins close to our generation, and even more children now in their 30’s and 40’s who, in turn, had produced offspring of their own to provide playmates for Alex, our five year old great nephew. For someone who grew up as an only child, the reunions produced by this large family might have been daunting, had they not been so warm and welcoming. During our short four day stay, we were only able to meet a small fraction of this very large family, but all of the dozens of cousins and respective spouses were so warm and welcoming that I felt as though I had known them for some time. In fact, Miki has spoken of them often, especially after her prior two visits, but now I was able to associate faces with the many stories I had heard. It helped that cousin Andris with wife Silvija and daughter Sandra with her husband Edgars I already met on their recent visit to California this past fall.
Disclaimer: The following represents, as the Germans would say, “ein Augenblick.” My impressions of people that I mention here, most of whom I had never met before, is based on very short, and limited contact, and may be completely wrong. I mean no disrespect to anyone here, and if you feel unfairly characterized, I apologize and am willing to make whatever corrections you feel are appropriate. Also, I lack the Latvian accents in this program, so my apologies to those whose names are incorrectly spelled.
Sandra, who is incredibly organized and energetic, provided us with a typed schedule (times included) of what were to be activities during our stay, along with two alternative choices for each selection. She and Edgars picked us up at Riga airport and drove us to our hotel, Ragi un Draugi (appropriately named, meaning “Relations and Friends” in Latvian) while her father, Andris, stayed behind to await Miki’s sister, Eva, along with daughter Maia, husband Jeff, and grandson, Alex, all of whom were flying in from England shortly after us.
I must confess, I did not have very high expectations of Riga, knowing from personal experience what war and years of Soviet occupation can do to a city. I was thus very pleasantly surprised what an amazingly great job the Latvians had done in just over twenty years in restoring their capital to its former glory. Added to the restored beauty of baroque and rococo apartments and famous towers of the city’s many churches were the numerous modern new buildings and bridges, some still under construction.
Despite a dire weather forecast of nothing but rain for four days, we arrived to sunshine, giving Miki the opportunity to show me around our centrally located hotel, so I could document for our friends the architectural gems surrounding us. The old city is blessed with a number of spectacular churches crowned with different styles of cupolas and spires that prompted me to recall the look and feel of Prague, along with imposing public buildings reminding the visitor of Riga’s historic importance as a trade center, with old German script on walls as mementoes of its place in the Hanseatic League. The setting sun over the Daugava River lit the golden spires of the churches with a rosy glow, providing impressive photographic memories of my first day in Latvia.
Good Friday morning reunited us over breakfast with Eva and her gang. Promptly, as always, Sandra and Edgars arrived with Lillita, one their three children (a talented young ballerina,) to take us on a walking tour of the city. Due to the Easter holiday, all museums were closed, but we had a chance to admire the impressive architecture of the city, to see the Opera House with its adjacent gardens, watch the proud guards in front of the soaring Brivibas piemineklis, Latvias Freedom Monument, and visit the ornate, and newly restored Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral. Having now worked up an appetite (never a challenge for our family,) Sandra and Edgars treated us to a tasty pastry and coffee at a charming restaurant near one of their offices. (Between them, they work four jobs, are raising three children, both going to law school, travel around the world, and manage to look great doing it – with people like them, I shouldn’t be surprised Riga was rebuilt in just over 20 years.)
Fortified with calories, we proceed to City Hall, St. Peter’s church, the old Powder Tower, through the Swedish Gate, and on to Livu Square, past Kaku nams, a yellow house with a large black cat perched on top, past street vendors with a dazzling array of Baltic amber, to touch the noses on the statue of the Bremer Stadtmusikanten (remember the fairy tale, The Musicians of Bremen?) for good luck, before moving on to an early dinner. Sandra had made reservations for us Rosengrals, an authentic medieval restaurant near the city center. It was certainly atmospheric, added to by the waiters being dressed as serfs, with candle and torch lights being the only illuminations. Throughout our stay, we were never allowed to pick up a check, and were treated as honored guests everywhere we went. Alex, who managed to be good throughout the day was getting worn out and a little cranky, so proceeded back to our hotel with grandmother Eva, while the rest of us made our way to the Doma baznica, the majestic cathedral where two choirs and the organ provided a memorable Good Friday concert. Despite our fatigue, Miki and I both enjoyed the evening of great music in an unforgettable setting.
As I said before, our hotel was desirably in the center of the city, within walking distance of most of the important sights. Unfortunately, it is also located across the street from a rock club/bar, which means loud drunks yelling in the street throughout the night and into the early morning. (Sadly, Riga has a number of these folks, thanks to a 20 euro one-way fare from London, attracting a number of hooligans drawn by the good and relatively cheap Latvian beers.) Despite being exhausted, we had less than restful sleep. But now it’s a new day, and refreshed by breakfast, we are picked up by Sandra, this time with all three children, along with her dad and his wife, for what I’m told will be a “full day in the country.” Having seen the typed schedule Sandra made for their last American visit, I knew I should have packed stimulants in my carry-on. Too late now. Besides, her father, Andris, who is at least my age, is as chipper as a chipmunk, and if he can do it, so can I. (Perhaps, he takes stimulants – after all, he and his wife just did a bus tour from Latvia to Spain and Morocco with stops in between 10(?) days just to prove they could do it. Now, he’s getting ready to go to Pakistan. But at least, I’m getting an insight into Eva’s genetic background.)
Included in the list of things unexpected was our visit that morning to Ligatne. We arrived at a one story building that is the prototype of Soviet era “holiday” spas, complete with ping-pong and pool table, ugly, institutional furniture and dim lighting. All this, however, is a subterfuge for a small, unmarked door toward the back of the building which, in its operational days, if you passed the security scrutiny, would allow you to enter a stairwell leading to three foot thick walled concrete bunkers thirty feet below ground that was a top secret Russian command post from which to operate during a nuclear war. Equipped with decontamination chambers, steel blast doors, its own power, ventilation and generation systems, capable of housing 250 people for a period of at least three months, the bunkers contained communication equipment with a direct KGB link to Moscow, a war room with maps of Latvia and its cities, along with evacuation routes, military zones, security and listening equipment so the KGB could monitor those inside the bunker as well as out, along the requisite bust of Lenin, Soviet flags, and the ever present slogans exhorting all to fight for the Worker’s Paradise. The flags and slogans were all depressingly familiar to me, having grown up with them in Hungary. What I found most disturbing, however, was that this facility was built around 1980, one of apparently 110 similar facilities just around Latvia alone, and that it was, intentionally or not, a design that would give the occupants a belief that they could somehow survive a nuclear holocaust. After the tour, we were given a lunch in the bunker’s cafeteria of what appeared to be a rather unappetizing plate of semi-translucent pasta pockets not unlike Chinese dumplings with a white sauce on the side that actually turned out to be quite tasty.
After our bunker tour, we were quite happy to be back above ground, visiting Gaujas National Park, where to my pleasant surprise, we had a chance to hike through the woods, see a brown bear, a Siberian raccoon, wild boar, several deer leaping through a meadow, some owls, and assorted other wildlife kept in nature enclosures. We reached a recently built 30 meter tall observation tower which gave those of us willing to climb up a panoramic view of the nearby river and the tower of Sigulda in the distance. Ever prepared, Sandra brought snacks for us to assuage our appetites in case we were still hungry after our Russian meal, and then proceeded to lead us to Sigulda to visit the remnants of the old castle, as well as the adjacent open air sculpture garden. The later I found very reminiscent of the Vigeland sculpture garden in Oslo.
We finished up the evening at her and Edgars recently built spacious home which they share with her parents. We were treated to a dinner of sushi and Chinese food. Alex enjoyed this part of the day the most, as he got to play with son Lauris’ Lego toys. We in turn had the chance to meet Sandra’s sister Ilze and husband Andris, along with their two children. Conveniently, they just live across the street, giving the grandparents lots of time with the grandchildren.
Easter Sunday – and it’s snowing! No big blizzard, just a gently drifting white cloud coming to cover Riga and the countryside, dressing up the scene for a festive holiday. This morning, I got to meet Martins, another cousin, who came to pick us up and take us to mother Inara and father Gunars house in the country, where I’m about to meet over a dozen more family members, along with respective spouses and children. Martins, though his English is a little more limited, is not at loss for words. He’s very warm and friendly, making me feel welcome. He points out all the sights as we are driving, which makes me a little nervous, though he’s driven these roads so often, commuting into Riga from Sigulda, that he could probably drive it blindfolded.
We arrive at Inara’s without incident, where delicious smells are coming out of the kitchen as soon as we walk in. Inara and I have exchanged letter over the years, and I heard so much about her and Gunars, I was looking forward to meeting them. She’s short, filled with energy, and overcome with emotion upon seeing Eva and Rute (Miki) along with the rest of our family. She holds me at arm’s length, looks me over, and gives me a great bear hug. I just walked in, and already I feel at home. She reminds me a lot of my father’s sister, Aranka, in Hungary – not in appearance, but in the emotional impact of her. Before I have a chance to even sit down, we are given a cup of delectable soup broth, and offered a large basket of piragi (pastry stuffed with spiced meat.) I’m already in seventh heaven, and we haven’t even sat down for our meal. Gunars has had a stroke and suffers with arthritis along with the other ailments of age, but he gamely shuffles from room to room, keeping up with the festivities. As he speaks no English, and apparently lost his German with his stroke, we have no common language besides smiles and hugs. It has to suffice.
Inara shows me a photo album of her and Gunars dressed up for the annual summer festival in their traditional native garb, and Gunars with his head covered with a crown of green leaves. I am inducted in the Latvian celebration of the seasons, of life, of family. Here I am sitting next to this woman I just met, and feeling like I’ve been a part of her family for ages.
I’m introduced to Martins wife, Ieva (an anesthesiologist who gets into a long work related discussion with Eva) along with their three sons, Matiss, Jurgis and Edvarts. Matiss looks like an artist, and is there with his attractive girlfriend, Olga. They seemed to keep apart from the rest of the family, (possibly because Olga doesn’t feel comfortable in this big family setting) so I never had a chance to talk with them beyond ‘hello’, though I notice Matiss pays attention to all that goes on, and when I finally find a topic to draw them out a little, their English is very good. Jurgis and Edvarts are much more approachable, and we soon found ourselves in conversation that lasted intermittently throughout the day. They are both bright, well informed, polite, and easy to talk with. Edvarts, the youngest of the three, is just turning twenty. He’s a tall, good looking young man with a ready smile, studying at the Swedish University in Riga, one of the two top schools in the country. Though he loves basketball and the NBA, he turned down an athletic scholarship to play at the University of Texas, choosing (wisely, in my opinion) to concentrate on academics to provide a more long term and secure future for himself. He’s already being recruited by some top firms, and I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t have a successful life. He’s very much a “people person,” and appears very close with his family. Jurgis, the middle son, is also quite pleasant, with well-formed opinions, which he’s willing to discuss and defend. He’s married with a five year old son, though I didn’t have a chance to meet his family.
The snow had almost stopped, and Martins led us on a short walk through the woods and the countryside surrounding the farm. The air was fresh and crisp, and the scenery enchanting. The first of the spring violets were making their appearance, and the daffodils were starting to bloom. Martins laughter and songs added gaiety to our outing. Soon, however, we had to head back to be in time for the festive feast ahead.
A good part of our food was prepared by Irita, Martins sister. She teaches English, so talking with her was no problem for me. She looks a little like Eva, but more with Miki’s personality. Her husband, Janis, is also teacher. Our meal, consisting of delectable small meat cutlets, poultry, potatoes, sauerkraut, carrots, and condiments was not only organic, but mostly home grown. With enough food to feed an army, I knew I had to pace myself for the dessert I foresaw coming.
In Latvia, you don’t just sit at a table and eat. You sing. It seemed everyone at the table (myself excepted) was blessed with musical talent. Inara led the group with more verses of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” than I knew existed, sung along in English by almost all those present. I doubt this is a traditional Latvian Easter song, but done, like much else, to make us non-Latvian speakers welcome and comfortable. Martins, and Antons sitting across from me, started up a duet, soon joined by others. Antons not only could have been one of the Three Tenors, but also whipped out his harmonica to enhance the music fest. Edvarts, though he did not have his guitar present, enthusiastically joined in all the merriment, as did Agnese (Irita’s son, Karlis’ significant other) of the memorable eyes and smile.
After filling ourselves with more food than I thought possible, Martins led us on another walk through the woods to a scenic cliff carved by the bend of the river gliding through the snow dappled pines and birches. Alex had a chance to get into a snowball fight with Martins while Karlis hoisted his 1 ½ year old daughter, Elizite (looking for all the world like a small, pink Easter bunny in her warm outfit,) on his shoulders to give her a better view. The time in the woods also gave me a chance to discover the source of Karlis’s excellent but British accented English – he and Agnese had lived in England for a couple of years before moving back to Latvia. I was also very happy to have a chance to talk with Jeff and Maia, not just this day, but throughout the trip. Since they moved to Colchester where Jeff is finishing up his Ph.D. at the University of Essex, we haven’t had much time to be together. Their son, Alex, remains the cutest boy in the world. (No, I’m not prejudiced.) Speaking of Alex, he had a chance to swing (literally) with Martins and Maia. The swing Martins led us to was actually more like a giant pendulum with a plank on which you stood as you pumped yourself with your legs into ever larger arcs into the sky. Alex got to stand in the middle while Maia and Martins did the hard work. And as Martins kept reminding us all, the mosquitoes can’t bit you while you’re swinging, so we were all safe.
As we headed back to the house, Martins stopped to drink out of a large glass jar in the woods that was collecting juice from one of the many birch trees by means of a hollow pipe driven through the bark into the tree, much as we collect maple syrup from the trees in New England. This is a popular drink in Latvia, though I’m told, somewhat of an acquired taste.
Now it was time for another Easter tradition. Inara requires those present to bring decorated Easter eggs, which are then judged on the merits of beauty and originality. Given how far we had to come, the Americans were given an exemption, though I was recruited to be one of the impartial judges. Agnese did a particularly clever job of decorating her eggs with hair made of yarn, and creating an Easter family. An egg painstakingly woven with blue thread produced another winner. Then, it was time for the egg roll. Martins brought with him a board a little over a meter in length, varnished and decorated with a burned-in design, with ledges on the side – this was placed on a 30 degree incline, and served as the ramp on which to roll the eggs. Each person selected one of the many colored eggs, and rolled it down the ramp so it would go across the floor. The winner was the one whose egg was closest to the far wall at the end of the contest. There were a variety of rolling techniques in evidence, but the laughter was universal. Prizes were handed out to the winners, as well as to the participants. I am now the proud owner of a nice coffee mug inscribed with the name Latvia.
Though I didn’t think I was going to be able to eat again that day, dessert on the table changed my mind. There was the traditional Latvian pashka, an egg shaped cheesecake like Easter specialty, as well as klingers, a sweet bread twisted into figure-eights, and filled with raisins and dried fruit – absolutely scrumptious! (Thanks to Irita’s generosity, we even got to take some with us to Denmark, where we had a chance to enjoy it again for lunch.) Antons’s wife, Arija, also brought a large cake with yellow cream filling, somewhat resembling a Napoleon, that was expertly served by Edvarts, and also quite luscious, filled with more calories than I wanted to contemplate. I just enjoyed it all, along with this great family on an unforgettable Easter Sunday.
Sadly, time (and to some degree my lack of Latvian) did not permit me to talk with all those who were present. Elina with her red hair, one of Irita’s daughters, was among those I missed. However, we were all getting tired, and Martins had to drive us all back to Riga, then drive himself home to Sigulda. I hope I can come back to Latvia again someday, and spend more time with this amazingly warm family.
Monday after Easter is still a holiday in Latvia. Edgars, Sandra, along with parents and kids, arrive to take us on our last outing in Latvia to the Ethnographic Open Air Museum, located on the coast of Jugla lake in Riga. Started in 1924, the complex consists of over 100 structures of typical buildings, a church, homes, farm structures, a large windmill, as well as demonstrations of weaving, games, folk art and utensils as they have existed for over 400 years. We arrived early, which is fortunate, as we were able to park and get in before the crowds showed up. We are looking at the small church, whose doors are locked, when Sandra is approached by an elderly, somewhat disheveled woman in a large winter coat that has seen better days. She offers to open the church for us and guide us around. She extracts a ring of huge keys, suitable for entry into Notre Dame, and finally locates the one for the ancient lock. The church inside has a painted wooden roof, as well as carved wooden figures familiar to anyone who has visited a country church in Eastern Europe. It’s still used for Lutheran services and occasional weddings. We are a bit leery at first of our guide’s capabilities, but soon discover that she is extremely knowledgeable, having served in this role for over 30 years. She’s now retired, but is giving us this private tour that makes our experience of the place much deeper than if we had wandered around on our own. Sandra and Edgars afterward admit to learning many things they had not known about their own history. The sun is out, making it a perfect day to walk about the grounds, where a food and craft fair is occurring, in addition to the usual exhibits. For lunch, they treat us to a traditional Latvian meal, complete with potato pancakes – outstanding!
In the afternoon, we head back to our hotel. Along the way, Edgars proudly shows us the site where his new office building is being constructed. We say our good byes to the always chic and smiling Sandra, to her gracious husband, parents and children, sad that we live so far apart, and hoping to see them, along with others in this wonderful family before too much time passes. That evening, Eva keeps Alex entertained, giving Miki and I a chance to spend some quiet time with Jeff and Maia, as we don’t know when we will be seeing them again. Jeff & Maia would like to stay in England if he can find a university post there, but only time will tell if this is possible.
Our flight to Copenhagen leaves at 6:40 in the morning. The weather forecast, which showed rains throughout our Denmark stay, is now accurate, as we arrive to grey skies and light showers. Maia had scouted out a great hotel with a perfect location along the scenic Nyhaven canal on her previous stay in the city, and gave us simple directions on how to get there from the airport by Metro. Having done prior research on Danish prices (very high for everything,) we purchase a 72 hour Copenhagen card for a $100 that allows us to use all Metros, buses and regional light trains, in addition to admission without charge to many of the museums and sights. Adding up the savings and convenience, it’s a bargain.
It’s too early to check in, but the Hotel Bethel takes our bags, as we proceed to explore our new destination. Along the pastel colored buildings of the canal lined with sailing schooners and houseboats, there are numerous (and pricey) restaurants and, despite the weather, a multitude of outdoor cafes. Our first stop is Rosenborg Castle, within easy walking distance from our hotel, a pleasant feature we find of many of the subsequent places we visit. The castle, built as a private country palace for Christian IV in the early 1600’s, is now a museum of the history of the royal family. Each room is furnished and decorated as it would have been during the reigns of various kings. In the great hall stands the unicorn throne of the kings, guarded by three silver lions. The walls are covered with wonderful tapestries, showing scenes from the Scanian War of the late 1600’s. Underneath the castle is the Treasury and the ornate crowns of the Danish kings and queens. There are botanical gardens just coming into spring bloom, and incredibly young looking guards in modern day uniforms, sporting the latest weapons, standing at their posts at the castle entrance.
From the castle, we move on to the nearby National Art Museum, containing an excellent collection of French Impressionist paintings, one of my favorites. We also luck into a special exhibition Vilhelm Hamershoi’s work, complemented by showing of other paintings borrowed from other museums, such as the portrait of Whistler’s Mother, that had an obvious influence on the artist. It was the best exhibit of its kind that I’ve seen. Both Miki and I came away with a new appreciation of the interconnectedness of art, as well as of the work of a man neither of us had seen before. The klingers I was carrying in my backpack from Irita carried us through the lunch hour. Tired of museums for the day, we decide to move outside.
As we walk past impressive churches and the Royal Theater, we are struck by the number of Danes who bicycle through the city, apparently oblivious to the elements. Most major thoroughfares have a bike lane, and even their own stoplights and turn signals for the cyclists. Like much of the Scandinavian countries, the city is remarkably clean. You can enter any public bathroom, and be just about guaranteed that it will be spotless. No longer a homogeneous blend of pale, blond, and tall Danes, there are a number of people of color throughout, and a surprisingly large number in Muslim dress. Reading the local paper, this is causing no small controversy in a country that, at least until now, forbids the flying of any other flag besides the Danish anyplace except on an embassy.
In the afternoon, we wander down Stoget, one of several pedestrian malls lined with expensive brand name shops like Dior and Hermes. It’s a great place to people watch, especially in the big square that contains the famous stork fountain. Out hotel had given us a recommendation to eat at Jansens, located behind a church just off Stoget. The food turns out to be very good, though with a limited selection, and the prices reasonable, at least for Copenhagen. It’s hard to adjust to sticker shock in a city where a cup of coffee costs $6, and hamburgers or sandwiches start around $20. The Danes obviously have a high standard of living, which may be why a recent UN poll of citizens of various countries placed them at the top of the happiness scale.
Our room is much quieter than the one we had in Riga. The bathroom is also a bit different. It is basically a large shower with a 3 inch high step that you have to remember not to trip over, in case you want to survive getting up during the night without turning on all the lights. And the toilet? Why, it’s in the shower room, of course. It’s very convenient if you multitask and wish to accomplish two functions simultaneously.
Breakfast is wonderful, but you wouldn’t expect anything else from a country that invented the Danish pastry. I have to say, the one I had that morning was the best I ever tasted. Fortified with sufficient calories, we have our first experience with the Danish regional train system. Fast, quiet, clean, well signed – I can’t say enough good things about it. It should be the model for light rail anywhere in the world. We are on our way to Kronborg Castle in Elsinore (or Helsingor, as the Danes would say) to visit the castle Shakespeare made famous with his play, Hamlet. As the guide at the castle would later tell us, you can’t buy publicity like that! The cannon surrounded fortress looks across the bay at what used to be Northern Denmark, but has been Southern Sweden for over 400 years, thanks to Danish kings coming out on the losing side of the wars they had started. Each summer, Hamlet, along with other Shakespearean plays, are performed at the castle by some of the top actors in the world.
Underneath, in the castle casements, sits the statue of Holgar the Dane. Head bowed over his mighty sword, with his shield beside him, he slumbers through the ages until, according to legend, he shall rise again to defend the Danes in their hour of need. He is the national icon of the Danish people, much like Uncle Sam is to the American. I would have liked to have visited the nearby Danish Technical Museum, but by then Miki had had enough, so we returned to Copenhagen. The rain had lifted, so we decided to take the canal tour of the city, leaving conveniently just a block from our hotel. If you come to Copenhagen, I highly recommend this tour, as it shows you many of the sights you can later come back and explore, along with an overview of the history and architecture of the place. You can also, if you like, get off the boat in three different locations, walk about, then catch the next boat coming by every fifteen minutes.
In the evening, we decided to try a new restaurant, Hoppe’s, also recommended by the folks at our hotel. The food was even better than at Jansen’s, and the prices similar. If you decide to eat here, I’ll caution you about one thing. The tables are close together, as in many European restaurants, and have large, exposed candles burning at their sides. Thus, you have to exercise extreme caution as you push your way between them, or you are likely to experience the unpleasant hot seat, as I did, when my bottom caught on fire. Fortunately, the only damage was to my pants, and the lower edge of my sweater. I hated to lose those pants, but it could have been worse. (Come to think of it, maybe that’s why they named the place Hoppe’s – for I certainly hopped about until the fire was out.)
On the last day our Copenhagen card is valid, we try to maximize its benefits. We therefore start the day by taking the train to Central Station, just opposite the Tivoli Gardens. Bypassing the Gardens for now, we visit the impressive City Hall, then admire Jens Olsen’s amazing mechanical astronomical clock. From there, it’s a short walk to the Hans Christian Andersen museum, whose statue stands prominently in front of City Hall. You don’t have to be a lover of fairy tales to enjoy this exhibit, but it helps. Two more blocks takes you to the Ny Carslberg Glypotek, a world class art museum. The building itself, with its Winter Garden, and impressive performance hall, rivals the quality of its art, from French Impressionist artists and Rodin sculptures to treasures of Egypt and Rome. When we are finally saturated with art, we walk across the street to the Tivoli Gardens. Miki was expecting lush, formal gardens, like at the Huntington. Instead, it’s Europe’s oldest amusement park, filled with roller coasters and thrill rides, and more of a Disneyland vibe than a royal garden. Still, it is interesting, with comfortable benches, from which we spent a couple of hours doing our favorite activity – people watching.
It has been a great trip, and though we are both exhausted, as you must be if you read this far, we are looking forward to our next adventure. Until then, this postcard finally ends.
Be well.

Advertisements
Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Rose Parade


THE SMELL OF ROSES

We awoke early, in time to get up and get ready to watch the annual spectacle of the Rose Parade in Pasadena. In keeping with tradition (and no one reveres tradition more than the white jacketed Tournament of Roses committee, with the possible exception of the British royalty) the Parade is never held on a Sunday, and thus never interferes with the WASP worship traditions of the committee members. This benefited us by allowing a decent recovery period following our New Year’s Eve revelry (modest by most other people’s standards, but hey, we were up to one AM!)

Today was an exceptional weather day, even by Southern California standards; crystal clear skies, sunshine, and temperatures in the mid to high seventies by the time the last  float passed the reviewing stand across from the Norton Simon Museum, whose wall was appropriately decorated with the stylized Rose emblematic of the event. There has long been a rumor that the Rose Parade organizers had a pact with the devil, guaranteeing no precipitation during the march down Colorado Boulevard. While I would not be terribly surprised to discover that some of these eminent members had at least a passing acquaintance with Old Nick, all I can say is that in the 40 years since I lived here, I have never seen rain befall the actual parade. Sometimes there was rain before the start, occasionally rain after, but during? Never! You be the judge.

I have to confess; as cynical as I may be towards the politics and the motivation of the organizers, there is a beauty and grandeur in the artistic arrangement of the millions of flowers and plants that go into the making of one float, and youthful wholesomeness to the faces of the thousands of young people who come here from all around the world to take part in a spectacle and tradition that is jubilant, festive and uniquely American. Watching this event on television in the cold, snowbound homes of the Midwest and Northeast, I can certainly understand why each year several million people decide they want to pull up stakes, stop shoveling driveways, and move to Southern California. Like most Chamber of Commerce brochures, you have to take this one with a large grain of salt, but there is no denying the appeal of the image that is broadcast into cold and wet homes elsewhere.

The millions of dollars and countless hours of volunteer time that go into this event certainly could be spent more productively and wisely than investing them in this very ephemeral day, but the reality is, they wouldn’t be. If the Rose Parade were to be abolished, I doubt all those people who are involved in its creation would suddenly channel their energies into feeding the poor, or helping the homeless. (In fact, a number of these people do both.) People have the need to create something that is beautiful, artistic, that celebrates life. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t have had the enjoyment of watching the splendid group of kids from Japan infect the crowd with their energy and music, or the pale blond mariners from Sweden squinting at the masses lining the boulevard as they marched for the first time in this granddaddy of all American parades.

Happy New Year to you all,

J.

 

Posted in News and politics, Thoughts & Musings | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

How Do You Justify Your Existence?


When I was considerably younger, I had a circle of friends who would get together once a month, and discuss items relevant to our lives at the time. Each meeting would start off with a question – “How do you justify your life?” We would then go round robin around the table, giving our answers, and receiving comments and questions in return. We were all survivors of some calamity or tragedy, be it war, physical trauma, a major illness – a happenstance from which not all walked away. This exercise proved to be not only useful, but life altering for many of us. It gave us a chance to acknowledge our good fortune, remind ourselves that our survival was not necessarily due to our skills and preparation for life events, but more to random chance (or to a few in the group, Fate, or God’s will; I was never quite sure which was the more terrible.) What we all shared was a sense of obligation to ourselves, and the rest of the world, to give something back for our good fortune, to give meaning to being survivors.
This by no means is a new theme. It has been addressed by many over the years, notably by Victor Frankl in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” It’s part of the essence of being human that we seek to find a narrative that makes sense of the randomness of life. For those of us who sat around that table, the answers were all different, but all contained a common theme – one of service to others. Some of us chose to provide service through our choice of professions; doctor, teacher, policeman, butcher (dispensing philosophy with his cuts of meat.) Others chose to serve through family, church, or community; lifetime care of a brother with Down’s syndrome, Kiwani’s, Lion’s, foreign missions. What we all shared was a sense that we had been given a gift, and we had the need to give back.
Sadly, our group has long separated, scattered around the country and the globe. Some of us never returned from serving our country; others have fallen to the ravages of disease and time. Still, the question we used to ask of each other, I continue to ask of myself – “How do you justify your life?” You need not share the answer with anyone other than yourself. However, it is a useful exercise to remind ourselves of all that we have to be grateful for, what we choose as our expression of gratitude, and the ways in which we are all connected to each other.
Be well,
J.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Long time gone


It’s been quite a while since I was able to come here and post a blog. In case any of you wondered what I was up to, I have been completely swamped in the myriad of details involved in merging and moving a medical practice. I’m just now settling in to my situation, but it will be some time before the adjustment is complete. I had no plans to make such a move until relatively recently, when it became obvious that with the changing economic situation of our country, I either had to find a way of reducing my overhead costs by sharing space and personnel, or retire. Since I enjoy what I do, and feel I’m entirely too young to spend my time sitting at home clipping coupons, the former option was far preferable. The down side of my move is that I’m no longer my own boss; I have to learn a new computer system, and get rid of a lot of accumulated stuff my new, smaller quarters will no longer accommodate. The upside is that I can continue to work at a reduced schedule, continue to teach at the University, have available coverage when I’m away or if I get sick, and there is someone who has made a commitment to take over my patients when I finally make the decision to retire.

My “new life” began on November 1, and while the transition hadn’t been as smooth as I had hoped (after a week, my phones are finally working and most of the computers are functioning, though the forwarding of mail is still an issue in negotiation with the US Postal Service) I feel the end results are going to justify the pain, and I feel good about my decision to embark on this new road. Now, I’ll have more time to read (my backlog of books and magazines should keep me busy for several years even if there are no additions to the piles,) write more, and visit some of my neglected blogging friends. I also look forward to more time with friends, more hikes in our local mountains, and a chance to visit my far away son more than I have been able to in the past.
To the few who may still read these words, be well.
J.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 7 Comments

Chocolate


I had just come back from a delightful hike in the local mountains. As we sat down with our friends,  I opened a bottle of wine, and shared a taste of chocolate. I confess – I’m a chocoholic. I’m afraid I will never be cured by a 12-step program, as I am shameless in my desire, and find myself surrounded by like minded people who fuel my addiction by giving me boxes of the stuff for birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries – you name it. I was going to write a whole blog on this topic, until I remembered, “Wait! I’ve done this before.” So here it is. Hope you enjoy it with a nice piece chocolate truffle!

CHOCOLATE – THE ALL CONSUMING PASSION
For those of you for whom chocolate is not just a passing fancy but a philosophy by which to live, but whose cravings are afflicted with guilt about health and nutrition, I offer the following items.


1) Chocolate is a vegetable. How, you ask? Chocolate is derived from cocoa beans. Beans are a vegetable. Sugar is derived from either sugar CANE or sugar BEETS. Both are plants, which places them in the vegetable category. Thus, chocolate is a vegetable.

2) To go one step further, chocolate candy bars also contain milk,
which is dairy. So candy bars are a health food.

3) Chocolate covered raisins, cherries, orange slices and strawberries all
count as fruit, so eat as many as you want.

4) If you’ve got melted chocolate all over your hands, you’re eating it too
slowly.

5) The problem: How to get 2 pounds of chocolate home from the store
in a hot car. The solution: Eat it in the parking lot.

6) Diet tip: Eat a chocolate bar before each meal. It’ll take the
edge off your appetite, and you’ll eat less.

7) If calories are an issue, store your chocolate on top of the
fridge. Calories are afraid of heights, and they will jump out of the
chocolate to protect themselves.

8) If I eat equal amounts of dark chocolate and white chocolate, is
that a balanced diet? Don’t they actually counteract each other?

9) Chocolate has many preservatives. Preservatives make you look
younger. Therefore, you need to eat more chocolate.

10) Put “eat chocolate” at the top of your list of things to do today.That
way, at least you’ll get one thing done.

11) A nice box of chocolates can provide your total daily intake of
calories in one place. Now, isn’t that handy?

12) If you can’t eat all your chocolate, it will keep in the freezer.
But if you can’t eat all your chocolate, what’s wrong with you?

13) If not for chocolate, there would be no need for control top pantyhose. An entire garment industry would be devastated. You can’t let that happen, can you?

Posted in Humor, Thoughts & Musings | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS


It has been one of those days in Southern California that justifies our choice of living here despite the traffic congestion, high taxes and the other well publicized problems of the State – clear, sunny, without significant humidity, balmy temperatures in the high 70’s, and Mt. Baldy still covered with a cap of snow. After going for a morning walk to enjoy the benefits of the Santa Ana winds, smell some of the spring flowers along the way, I had a rare chance to relax, read the Sunday paper and reflect on the mixture of bad and good news to be found inside the pages. As usual, the bad news predominates, reflecting the journalist’s bias (and sad truth about human nature) that good news doesn’t sell papers. Given this selection criterion, it’s sometimes difficult to know if the world (and the people in it) is really as terrible a place as the media would have us believe.

One would have to be a complete Pollyanna to not realize the terrors that war, human cruelty and greed, not to mention the devastation Mother Nature brings to the human condition. No wonder that many choose simply to avoid reading newspapers or watching news programs, as we have all become overburdened and desensitized by the amount of carnage and horror delivered daily in front of our eyes. I hadn’t even had a chance to reflect on the earthquake damage in Haiti, Chile, and then New Zealand, especially as it might apply to our own geography, before the tsunami in Japan and the nuclear plant meltdown shifted my focus in a different direction. Now, with the tornado ravaged Southeast competing for news attention with the British royal wedding (a telling assessment of our values based on the time allocated to each,) I cannot recall any recent mention of what is happening in these other areas, though I intellectually know that the people there remain homeless, are still dealing with loss and daily deprivation. Sadly, just as the flotsam and jetsam of their lives have been washed out to sea, their problems are also lost in the relentless never ending news cycle of the media.

I was brought up by my parents to care about the suffering of others, to be grateful for the daily blessings of my life, to share with others surplus which is mine when their needs exceed my own. I still believe that this is the right way for me to live, but I admit, I feel completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems that are daily placed in front of me. I, along with millions of others, suffer from compassion fatigue. It’s daunting to realize that if I did nothing else but devote my entire life, energy and resources to the solution to but one of these myriad issues daily raised before my eyes, it could totally consume me, and still not do more than scratch the surface of the problem. I admire, and attempt to emulate those who have selected one or two worthwhile projects to which they lend their support, and who have remained steadfast in their focus. I continue to be impressed with the generosity of the American people in continuing to give to disaster after disaster relief, even knowing that their money is sometimes misspent or wasted.

I have been very fortunate in my life. All along the way, I have encountered angels in the form of people who have given me financial and moral support, who had literally taken me into their homes as though I were one of their own, who have opened doors for me that would have remained closed without their aid.  There is always more that each of us can do for another, and it is a struggle for me, as I’m sure it is for many of you, to know where to draw the line between obligation of what I owe to myself and my family, and what I owe to someone who has been less fortunate than me. One way to deal with this dilemma, and one which I’m sure all of us have attempted to practice at one time or another, is to attempt to avoid seeing need so as not to feel guilty about not responding to it. Unless you live in almost complete isolation, this is almost impossible in our society. Another is to draw up a budget, setting aside a sum (be it money, time, or both) you feel you can devote to helping others. But what do you do when your budget has been spent, and an appeal reaches you that is difficult to ignore?  How much right do we have to deprive someone close to us of our time or financial resource without their specific consent for what we feel is a greater need? And in the end, just how much impact does what we do have on the life of another? In my personal case, I can give you an easy answer – tremendous! I hope those of you who read these words will reflect on your own situations, continue to struggle with the balance between your good impulses, your selfish needs, and the legitimate needs of your families, and remain generous with the less fortunate.

Be well,

J.

Posted in Thoughts & Musings | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

OLD FRIENDS


 

We just returned from spending a couple of days in the mountains, relaxing, eating, hiking, and spending time with old friends. They’ve invited us, along with another couple, two of our dearest friends, to share their beautiful home overlooking a scenic mountain lake. We’ve all known each other for over thirty years. He and I were colleagues until his retirement, and we’ve taken a number of trips together here in the States, as well as around the world. We’ve watched each others’ kids grow up, get married, create lives of their own. We’ve seen the lines of age change our faces, the weight of years alter our movements, and the experience of life mellow our opinions along with our expectations.

To say our friends are hospitable, kind and charming would be gross understatements. We feel very comfortable together, knowing we are accepted, cared for, welcomed. There are no hidden agendas. No one is looking to find favor, advantage, opportunity. We have some shared history, a few common interests, and a tolerance for the other’s beliefs. We seek not to covert the other to our own ideology or faith. We enjoy each other’s humor, and have heard each other’s joke many times over, but we still laugh at each re-telling. We are very fortunate that life, on the whole, has been kind to us, and while we each have had our shares of trauma, we have learned to be grateful for the gift of each day. They are almost a generation older than us, but have retained the gift of play with each other, maintaining at times a degree of childish teasing and joy that gives me hope for our own futures.

Over time, I hope and expect we’ll have other friends come into our circle, but they will never be able to replace the bonds we have forged with each other over many decades. It takes time to get to know people well, to see them in different settings, to appreciate their character in response to the various challenges of life. There is also something to be said about being with a person who knows you well enough to see through the various protective veils we all wrap ourselves in, in front of whom there needs to be little or no need for subterfuge. Old friends become our dearest treasures.

Posted in Thoughts & Musings | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments