Wednesday, December 29, 2010

“The Creative Problem”

Working on a small piece about creativity and was just wondering if you could give me a word, phrase or sentence on what you think about when you hear the term "the creative problem."
Last night I began reading, for the first time, Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein. In the preface to the second edition she touches on this very issue:
“Everything must have a beginning… and that beginning must be linked to something that went before.… Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested by it.”
In her case, a dream, or perhaps better a nightmare. In my case, sometimes a dream; sometimes a deliberate plan.

The creative problem, if there is one, must be individual; different folks have different problems. Virgil Thomson used to say, sit down at your writing-desk every morning at the appointed hour. If your Muse doesn't show up, it's her fault; you've discharged your end of the agreement.

I find it's better to say Three hours every day, or whatever, rather than Nine to noon every day, or whatever. If the latter, then when nine o'clock has gone by and I haven't gone to work, I tend to say Oh well, I'll sit down at nine o'clock tomorrow. Whereas if the former, even if by now it's one o'clock in the afternoon, there are still three hours left somewhere in the day, better get to work.

But there are also general creative problems, and one of them is historical: the problem of creating Something New. This isn't really a problem, because it has no solution: it's impossible to create something new (see Shelley, above). That was a Modernist injunction conceived out of rebellion against history; it was continued as a marketing device.

Another general creative problem: the amount of distraction today, far worse I think than formerly. You really do almost need A Room of One's Own, as Virginia Woolf said. Without telephone, though I find Wikipedia a useful desk tool when I'm writing.

My own creative tools, or methods — things I do to get started, or re-started:
Tell a story.
Make a map.
Arrange a few objects.
Re-read my journal.
Look at a random sentence in a random book.
Listen to a random phrase in a random recording.
In my case, it doesn't often help to look at photos, pictures, out the window; that generally distracts me rather than inspires me. But of course if I'm writing about travels that's another matter.

Of course there come times when for weeks on end you're simply too busy with other things, or mundane things, to be “creative,” which is why even The Eastside View falls silent for weeks at a time. Doesn't mean I'm not thinking, or listening, or looking, or lurking.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Dutch-American historical connection

YESTERDAY I READ A BOOK confirming and explaining the connection I've long felt exists between Netherlands and the United States — a common mentality, you might say, a societal posture differentiating them from other nations. Not all other nations, perhaps; and not entirely: but a special orientation enabling a societal organization — "political," in fact — that underlies the social responsibilities enabling a social contract, written or not.

The book is in fact a pair of short essays by Geert Mak and Russell Shorto, 1609, The Forgotten history of Hudson, Amsterdam, and New York, published in 2009 in a handsome bilingual edition by the Henry Hudson 400 Foundation. Hudson arrived in New York harbor on his ship the Half Moon in 1609; the book was published as part of the events celebrating the 400th anniversary of that event.

Hudson was English, not Dutch, but he sailed on a commission from the Dutch East India Company, who hoped he would find a short route to Japan and China by sailing along the north Russian coast where the long summer days, it was thought, might melt the polar ice. He was four centuries too soon for that, as we know now, and before rounding the north cape of Norway turned back, crossed the Atlantic, and sailed to what is now Virginia to visit his friend John Smith in the colony there; then looked into first the Delaware river, then what's now the Hudson, hoping for a passage through the North American continent to the Sea of Japan.

(Not as ridiculous as it seems today, Shorto points out. At the time most navigators and cartographers thought that Ptolemy's ancient estimate of the size of the earth was correct; this would have placed Japan about where Ohio is.)

Hudson sailed up his river as far as present-day Albany before the river proved entirely fresh water, not salt, dashing that hope. But he explored the banks, and reported back to the Company that the fields were fertile and well-supplied with game. Before long the Dutch were sending colonists to stake out their own territory north of England's doomed Roanoke colony, and New York was Nieuw Amsterdam until 1664, when the English finally claimed the city at gunpoint.

By then the city had begun to develop qualities that characterize it still, qualities that early set it apart, Shorto writes, from "Boston, Hartford, or any other city in English North America." And what were those qualities? "Free trade and an immigrant culture," the features that enabled Amsterdam's rise in the late 16th and the 17th century as the most important, richest trading city in the world. The shipping companies were owned by a Dutch innovation, stock companies, not a monarchy; risk was shared as were returns; and the co-operation this necessitated was underwritten by a relatively liberal, tolerant view of differing social values.

Amsterdam, with its busy seaport, had already been attracting refugees from the religious wars in Germany and France, and the suppression of the Jews in Spain. "In an age of religious strife, it was almost universally held that a nation should be of one people and one faith," Shorto writes.
Intolerance was thus official policy in England, Spain, France… but not in the Dutch nation. There, tolerance became a topic of political and religious debate. Tolerance was adopted as a policy — not as a grand ideal, but as a way to deal with the mixed character of the population.
The Union of Utrecht, for example, declared as early as 1579 that "each person shall remain free, especially in his religion, and that no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of their religion."

As a result, Shorto argues, the Dutch colony in New York was a mixture of ethnic and religious strains from the beginning, approaching common problems and decisions in the spirit of common consent. "Even as early as the 17th century," Mak writes,
the Dutch had an uncontrollable inclination to assemble and to "polder" or debate until consensus is reached. This inclination based on the collective decision-making they were accustomed to as they worked together to reclaim their wetlands… Everything revolved around the art of persuasion, convincing others through debate.
The technique has its drawbacks, of course: it requires an educated, articulate, and probably fairly small body of discussants; and it takes time to arrive at its consensus. But it's a commendable procedure, and no doubt served as a model to the "Founding Fathers" as they themselves debated the form of the new government to follow the American Revolution.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Rural; urban

OR: COUNTRY MOUSE, city mouse. For a long time it's seemed to me possible, maybe even simple — too simple, you'll object — to divide elements of human culture into those two categories.

This first occurred to me through coming to know the music of Anton Bruckner: big, easy-paced symphonies. It's true they're often characterized as monumental, even architectural, and somehow that does seem appropriate, whatever it means. I can understand those who liken his symphonies to cathedrals. It helps the fancy to recall that he was a devout man and a church organist.

But it occurred to me an even more helpful entry to these cathedrals of music was by walking. It had occurred to me even before I read somewhere of Bruckner's own walks, long ones, from home to school, from home to church, across the flat Austrian plains in the countryside south of Linz. I'd already sensed a logical connection between Bruckner and Schubert, whose late music often has a similar walking tempo. Schubert did a lot of walking too, but not in the countryside; his walks took him across Vienna, as a century later Erik Satie's walks took him across Paris.

Beethoven walked too, preferring the countryside outside Vienna; but I don't think of him as the inveterate walker that Bruckner was. Nor do I think Mozart can have been much of a walker: serene as much of his music is, it has the serenity of contemplation, not of walking; besides, he must have been in far too much a hurry most of the time. (I recently re-read his letters; you can't imagine how much activity he packed into that short life.)

Some music just seems to exhale country air through its phrases and cadences. Bruckner; Berlioz; Webern. I know the knowledge forms the impression; the music itself can't be responsible. Copland's harmonic dispositions are as wide as Berlioz's, for example, and few composers write more urban music than Aaron Copland — as far as I'm concerned, even Rodeo and Appalachian Spring reveal their Paris-New York breeding. But perhaps this country quality is expressed in purely musical terms through tempo and, especially, articulation. The even duple stresses and repetitive phrase-structure of the slow movement of Schubert's Ninth Symphony is a perfect example of this.

Of course there are Country and City painters, too, and poets, and cooks. We saw a wonderful show of landscapes by Giorgio Morandi the other day. He's known for his still lifes, of course; the idea of Morandi landscapes was particularly intriguing. He spent nearly his entire life in the city, in Bologna, but his landscapes are almost entirely rural. The Italian and French words — paisaggio; paysage — convey the open-country feel better than does "landscape," I think (though there again I'm probably completely misled by language; one's own language is so familiar that it tends to convey qualities more prosaic than do the languages one's much less adept with).

I think there was only one painting in the exhibition, though, that did not contain among its pictorial matter a building, or a road, or some mark of man's hand on the landscape. Most of the paintings contained mute Italian country houses. These tend to be cubical, probably because that's the most efficient use of material to contain space while relying on straight lines, not curved ones. (Masonry hates curves.) The windows tend to be few and small, protecting interiors from wind, cold, and blazing sun.

There are no people or animals attending these buildings, not in Morandi's world, and the feeling aroused by these landscapes is very like that associated with his still lifes. In both cases, the real subject seems to be the permanence of the evanescence of human products — houses, barns, bottles, pitchers — as they stand stolid, mute, dissociated from the humanity that made them through their obvious lack of use at the moment.

Why should Morandi's seem a country mentality to me, rather than an urban one? Perhaps because through both his palette and his geometry he so often recalls Cézanne? Perhaps because the nature of Morandi's moods resonates with my own mood, when I am lost in nature, away from noise and crowds, steeping myself in self-in-nature apart from intellectual, urbane, societal distractions?

We began our current journey with three days in noise and crowds at the Salone di Gusto in Torino, virtually every waking moment subject to insistent, urgent demands of all five senses. (The last day, in fact, we took a light-hearted test of the skills our five senses had at dealing with both subtle distinctions and imperious attacks.) Then came three days in snowy, rural Savoie; then three in the countryside and the villages of the Valsusa.

A week ago, on Sunday, we were back in a crowd of people, gazing at those wonderful Morandi paintings in an exceptionally well-installed show at the Fundazione Ferrero in Asti; but we spent the night in an isolated country hotel. The next morning we drove through the mute, Morandi-like mists of the Po Plain to Milan, as stylishly busy a city as I care to deal with, and tested our mental-emotional balance negotiating between its crowds, traffic, and trattorias and the discursive conversation we enjoy with our friends Richard and Marta the next two days.

Wednesday we flew across the unseen Alps, through the night sky and above clouds, to Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, where we made the mental shift from Italian to Dutch, bought a Dutch phone-chip, took a Dutch train to this very familiar provincial city in Gelderland, my favorite province. We're staying with another couple of friends, really old and close friends. We've been relaxing, more or less, conversing, walking, shopping, reading a little.

Last night, to get back to the subject, we took the bus, the four of us, to the nearby provincial capital Arnhem, where we saw the National Ballet in three major works: Krzysztof Pastor's Moving Rooms, to music by Alfred Schnittke and Henryk Gorecki; Hans van Manen's Without Words, to Hugo Wolf's Mignon songs; and Benjamin Millepied's One Thing Leads to Another, to music by Nico Muhly. (Yes, all three titles were in English; yes, that choreographer's name is really Millepied.)

The opening work didn't interest me at all, either choreographically or musically, and I dozed. The other two, though, I found both beautiful and interesting. Without Words was basically a series of pas de deux, one woman (Igone de Jongh) responding to one or another of three men (Jozef Varga, Juanjo Arques, Alexander Zhembrovskyy) flirtatiously, or seriously, or disinterestedly, to the interesting musical accompaniment of Hugo Wolf songs presented through their piano accompaniment only, the voice (and therefor the texts) missing altogether. (Reinbert de Leeuw was the pianist, onstage though well back and ill-lit, and he was marvelous.)

One Thing Leads to Another was an altogether fascinating interpretation in dance, by no fewer than twelve male and twelve female dancers, of Muhly's always interesting, always clear, sometimes surprising score for large orchestra. The music is now choppy and insistent, now long-lined and insidious; its orchestration is skilful; its architecture logical but rarely obvious. (It was played splendidly, by the Olland Symfonia, conducted by Benjamin Pope.)

Millepied's choreography was attentive to small details while building large units. I thought it clear that he's found ideas in Mark Morris, in Cunningham, in Pina Bauch, just as Muhly clearly knows his Stravinsky, his John Adams, his Louis Andriessen. But everyone associated with this piece seemed quite comfortable knowing such sources, yet turning their contributions to new, idiomatic, individualistic expressions.

I call this quality sophisticated and urbane. It can be achieved by country artists: God knows Berlioz proved that. But last night it was the product of distinctly urban mentalities, and I was in exactly the right mood to deal with their "Strong Voices," as the entire program was called.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Valsusa, 2: Chapels

AFTER AN INTERLUDE of a couple of days in Milan, too busy to write, I resume, I hope. If you look at a map of Italy you see at what's normally though of as the northwest — though in fact the peninsula does not run north and south, but lies at a rakish angle against the compass — a big sort of shoulder: that's the two regions of Val d'Aosta and Piemonte. Val d'Aosta's an interesting place, rather isolated though easily accessible, a valley open at the south corner but otherwise ringed by Alps, home to Italy's magnificent national park the Gran Paradiso. We've driven through Aosta a few times, twice spending the night in one or another corner high up a side road, and have fond memories of the people, the terrain, and the cuisine. But we know Piemonte much better.

Piemonte's terrain is quite varied, flat and easily farmed in its southern half, rumpled for vineyard and truffle forests in the east central region, marshy along the great Po river where the best rice is grown. But it's the western side of the region I like best, the series of five or six valleys cut and drained by fast streams running from the high snowy ridgeline down to the foot of the mountains (pie monti in dialect).

Lindsey's father was born in Chiomonte in one of the northernmost of these valleys, the Valsusa. The country hereabouts is rugged. Chiomonte's above the Dora Riparia river on the south , right bank; across the river the mountain rises nearly vertically in some places, terraced with vineyards that seem impossible to maintain, and laced with perpendicular flumes, pipes perhaps a meter in diameter, bringing snowmelt down precipitously to run a hydroelectric plant.

(I like to think Lindsey's father was inspired by the awe of this landscape, and by this daring domestication of its powers, to an early fascination with electricity; he became an electrical engineer after his emigration to the United States.)

Like the Savoie on the other, French side of the ridge, the mountains and foothills on the Piemonte side are dotted with romanesque chapels, many containing frescos in the powerful, sometimes lyrical naive itinerant style of the area. We visited two of these: San Benedetto on the south side of the valley, above Villar Focchiardo in a regional park; and the Abbazia di Novalesa on the north side, just off the road leading over the Moncensio pass to Lanslebourg on the French side.

Chapel at the Abbazia di Novalesa

The Abbey was interesting for its architecture, its fine site overlooking a beautifully farmed valley, and its frescos celebrating Saints Eldrado and Nicholas, important local saints whose pilgrimages led them to these mountains. We drove there, impolitely driving right up to the abbey which is still a working religious retreat open to tourists only a few hours a week, and we joined a group of Italian tourists guided by an enthusiastic and very sympathetic guide who did her best to be sure I had some idea of what she was explaining though she knew very little English.

We walked to San Benedetto, driving to the end of a long narrow paved road, through many switchbacks, to a parking spot at the end, then walking nearly an hour along a narrow footpath through mixed hardwood forest, crossing a fast stream (half cascade) midway on the walk on a crude bridge a foot or so wide, then climbing fairly steeply before suddenly coming out into an alpage centered on a stone farmstead and the chapel, church really, of S. Benedetto.

S. Benedetto (center) in its alpage

This was founded by Cartusian monks walking here on their pilgrimage from Mont St. Michel on the French coast, by way of the Grand Chartreuse in the French Alps outside Grenoble, finally to Rome. I suppose these waypoints were settled partly to shelter, partly to supply later pilgrims taking the same strenuous but in many ways refreshing journey. In their day, of course, the terrain was wilder; the woods full of wolves, life considerably more uncertain. On our little pilgrimage up to the chapel the only danger was the slippery wet chestnut leaves underfoot; those, and the souvenirs left by milk-cows and cow-dogs, inevitably fouling our shoes.

On one side of the church a low side-room has been turned into a fromagerie where wheels of mountain cheese, tomme or tomo depending on your language, are left on crude wooden shelves to take on some age. I asked the farmer, who was about to round up his herd, what breed the cows were: "French," he said — the same red-brown breed we'd seen playing their bells on the main street in Lanslevillard. (Looking back on the little video I made of them that day, I see now that some of them are the Abondance breed, easily distinguished by the black "spectacles" they wear.)

The church has been stabilized, not really rebuilt, and a wooden suspended floor has been provided to protect the original. Apparently concerts are given here in the summertime; there must be a paved road up here that we didn't know about — I'm glad, as we might otherwise have missed a truly fine afternoon's hike.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Valsusa, 1: Agriturismo

Milan, November 1—
WE SEEM USUALLY to have incredibly good luck finding places to stay and to eat. In Lanslebourg, wondering what to do for three days and nights near Chiomonte, I looked for "agriturismo" near Susa, and found four. I chose the first, nearest Susa: Cré Seren. After finally getting my jacket liberated from the museum in Modane we drove back to Lanslebourg, then over the Moncenisio pass…

But first a few words on this road, which we'd already taken a few days earlier, on Monday, in a light snowstorm, northbound. We first drove this road perhaps thirty years ago, and I had distinct memories of that summer's drive, past a pretty lake where two girls, maybe twelve years old, were sitting on the grass weaving daisy-chains as they kept watch over their small herd of milk-cows.

We'd driven down through France and were eager to get to Italy and were pleased to see the conifers on the French side of the pass give way to mixed hardwood forest, then palms and citrus trees. Kennst du das Land, wo die Citrönen bluhen? Heidi and The Sound of Music giving way to Goethe!

Last Thursday, though, I noted the lake was a reservoir held back by an immense earthen dam; there were neither girls nor cows to be seen; the weather was chilly. The end of October is a long way from July at this altitude. We did stop just beyond the dam to investigate what seemed an abandoned village, its few buildings in varying degrees of collapse. It wasn't inviting, and we went on.

Our dashboard navigator with its incredibly irritating Englishwoman's voice — turn right at the vee-ah ee-vray-AH — led us to our agriturismo by a dubious route. I should have expected this; the same thing had happened to us in Sicily, when we were also led into an increasingly narrowing street. We turned an improbably steep angle, down a cobbled road between plastered stone walls confining fields, between frugally placed houses leaving almost no room for traffic, finally pulling in both side mirrors and driving with inches to spare, but finally noticing signs to Cré Seren, and finally drawing up at a pretty little chapel beyond which stood a winery shed across the street from what proved to be Cré Seren's restaurant.

This wasn't our digs, though. The restaurant was closed; no one seemed about. Back at the parked car, wondering what to do, we waited until a pleasant-looking man, fortyish, walked out of the winery. He asked us what we needed, then crossed the road to call into a kitchen window, and our hostess stepped out, apologizing for her lack of English, smiling at my Italian.

Another fellow drove up in a small pickup with a box of tomatoes and peppers, and the hostess transferred them to the wheelbarrow and trundled them back across the road. In the meantime her mother had materialized, a small, goodlooking woman with a marvelously good-natured face all smiles: she would lead us to our bedroom.

She set off back down the road, on foot, motioning to us with that curious Italian gesture, pawing the air palm down, and we drove slowly after, down the street and into a courtyard where she showed us to leave the car in front of a woodpile, the hood and windshield under an overhang.

The room itself was another forty feet away, up the street, into another yard flagged with basalt and granite, next to a vegetable garden, up a flight of stairs. Inside, two twin beds and a bunkbed; next to that bedroom, an enormous bathroom (lacking, however, a tub).

We later learned that this cheery lady was Sylvana Sereno. Her daughter, the cook, is Serena Sereno. (Her brother, who we never met, is named Hilario Sereno: Sylvana is a master of light poetry, I suspect.) The winemaker was Serena's husband, GianCarlo Martina: Italians often keep their own surnames when they marry.

I won't write here about the food and wine at this agriturismo; you may already have read about it over at Eating Every Day; if not, click over there if you like. I will explain that an agriturismo is a place licenced by the government to bring tourists in contact with the agricultural tradition of Italy; the food and wine served is often, perhaps always for all I know, produced by the location (obvious exceptions like cocoa, sugar, and coffee being tolerated); and in our experience the people who run these places seem to be particularly oriented toward small-farm, sustainable, chemical-free practice, though by no means refusing continuing education into modern versions of traditionally-valued agricultural practise.

After unpacking and cleaning up a bit I wanted a walk, and set out toward a chapel I'd noticed perhaps half a mile away, down the street through the village — if village it was: for there seemed no commercial center or indeed any commercial buildings at all apart from the winery, itself a modest sort of barn with no facilities for retail sales or tasting. On either side of the street were houses and their vegetable gardens or, occasionally, small orchards or vineyards. These were fenced and in many cases guarded by frisky, noisy dogs, mostly terriers it seemed.

I passed a fellow who was cleaning up a press-basket, having just finished pressing out his private stock of Barbera. We had a pleasant conversation, in the course of which he agreed that things in the Valsusa were changing: The only thing that's improved around here is the wine, he said, though he didn't seem outraged at the decline; rather he seemed optimistic and grateful for the improvement. I went on, past an open pasture in which the most enormous chestnut tree I've ever seen stood, certainly toward eight feet in diameter. A man was raking its leaves and chestnut-burrs away from the trunk, working methodically, raking out to a circular periphery exactly at the dripline, say twenty feet from the trunk. A wagon stood nearby; he'd soon be piling the leaves in it. For feeding his livestock, I wondered, later in the winter, when everything would be snowed in?

As I walked back the man with the press-basket eyed me curiously. You must be Mario's cousin, he said. No, I said, I don't have a cousin named Mario, I have no family at all in these parts, it's my wife's family comes from here, from Chiomonte. Ah, Chiomonte, he nodded thoughtfully; Chiomonte.

In the next three days we had three dinners at Cré Seren, each very good indeed. When on Friday morning we drove into Susa for information on walking-paths in the area I mentioned that we were staying there, and the lady at the tourist-office desk nodded and said Very good table there; that's a woman knows how to cook.

Serena feigned no English, though I suspect she speaks a little and understands more. (I'll never know how it is these people can understand more than they can speak; with me it's the contrary. Perhaps it's just that I speak, I talk talk talk, whether I know what I'm saying or not. As Laverdure the parrot says, in Zazie dans le Metro, tu parle, tu parle, c'est tout ce que tu pourras.) That didn't keep us from conversations, in the course of which she mentioned that the government restricts agriturismo tightly; they must have no fewer than x beds, no more than y; their dining rooms must have no fewer than x covers, no more than y; they must serve traditional food of the country: in this case, vitello tonnato, bagna cauda, brasato al polenta, bonet

None of that offends me at all. In fact I think it a good idea: old traditions are kept alive that might otherwise vanish, and the links among terrain, climate, nutrition, daily life, and daily pleasure as well as work are maintained.

For the most part the natives of this valley seem remarkably healthy. We hear of people of considerable age: there's a woman in Gialgione who's 105, and in full command of her senses though a little deaf, they say. People are lean and bright-eyed and ready to do things, perhaps at a measured rate, but one that accomplishes the task. Tools and vehicles are appropriately scaled. All parts of the land, the buildings, the day seem to be put to use: when not, they're allowed to collapse gracefully, sinking back into the soil.

Yet Serena told us even here there's been the constant flight to the city, especially by the young people. (I reflected on the migrations of the past: of Lindsey's father's family, for example; only her father, of his family of five siblings, ever returned to the land; and then to a distant land indeed, fortunately for me.) As people leave, their smallholdings begin to disappear. Where once had been orchards and vineyards the wild forest begins to encroach. They never used to worry about wild animals; now they have to fence against mountain goats and sheep, capretti, wild pigs.

Wolves? Yes, she said, even wolves; they don't bother us of course, they don't bother the gardens, but if you have sheep you have to think about them, shepherds now have big white dogs big enough to hold the wolves at bay, and the dogs are frightening too.

We've seen a fair amount of this forest, both on drives and on a wonderful walk we took the other day. Mixed hardwood forest with a fair number of chestnuts and horse-chestnuts, the colors and textures of the forested hillside incredibly beautiful to look at. The balance of nature and human occupation seems poised at a tentative stand-off, and I'm glad the traditional values (not to menbtion the skills) haven't completely vanished: before long they may well be needed, when areas like this have been left by technology's failure to fend for themselves.

Modane, Oct. 28: Museobar

Milan, November 1—
WE WERE ESSENTIALLY without Internet connection for the three days after leaving Lanslebourg: hence I have catching up to do, and will inevitably get confused about the time. Traveling like this always does strange things to my sense of time; or, rather, it confuses the days as their events mingle not only among themselves but also recall similar events on other travels, or similar sights or sounds in other places. Still, I make an attempt.

In the first place we spent the morning, last Thursday, in Modane, chiefly because I wanted Lindsey to see the Museobar there. Opened by the city of Modane in 2008, it celebrates and presents a specific part of the history of that frontier town, a part very dear to us: Modane's role as a center of emigration from Italy to other places, in the years 1860-1935. Modane lies on the northern (French) slope of the Moncenisio massif.

For a few hundred years its economy was primarily mining (especially lead) and, of course, agriculture, but the Industrial Revolution changed things. Waterpower produced abundant electricity, and small manufacture developed. The railroad arrived about 1860 (hence that starting date in this museum), opening distant markets. Then, in the late 1860s, the push developed for a tunnel piercing the Moncenisio massif, uniting France and Italy.

Until 1860 this entire region had not been French at all. It was Savoy, a nation whose ruling house was the longest-ruling family in Europe. There were two capitals, as the family's interests wandered from one side of the ridge to the other: Chambery and Torino. The official language was French, I suppose, but of course the people spoke the dialects of their own districts. In mountainous regions like this the concept of an overriding nationality was unfamiliar: since Hannibal and his elephants (not to mention Julius Caesar and his legionnaires) the country had been traversed and to one degree or another exploited by "leaders" from distant places, but the inhabitants had continued in their own traditions: herding, small-farming, hunting, trading.

After Napoleon, and especially in the time of the Second Empire, the French urge to spread to the ridges became irresistable. An election was held in 1860 to "reunite" (as the French had it) Savoy with France, and a majority was counted in favor of the idea -- though the result has been contested ever since.

Soon after, the railroad was built, mostly with Italian labor. Then as now Italy was poor, relative to the more Northern countries on "our" side of the Alps, and the contadini grew in numbers beyond their resources, starting with those in the nearest regions. Lindsey's own grandmother, for instance, though she was born and grew up in Chiomonte in the Valsusa, worked in France, mostly in Paris according to family history, as a wet-nurse. She'd have a baby, park him with a sister or a cousin, take the train to Paris, and nurse a well-to-do French baby for a couple of years; then return to Chiomonte and her husband until another baby was born and weaned, when the cycle would repeat.

Generations of Italians emigrated through the tunnel from Bardonecchia to Modane. Lindsey's grandparents did in the first decade of the 20th century; her father followed, alone, ten years old, in 1914. So the panels of photographs, and the extended quotations from oral-history interviews with oldtimers, fascinated us as we visited this museum. There are four "rooms," each depicting a café of a different generation, with photos of the period, murals depicting typical citizens of the town in four different periods: the bourgeois early period, the time of the first big wave of Italian passants, the roaring 'twenties, and the Modane of military occupation by huge regiments stationed here for defense, as the Maginot Line was being built during the nervous years before 1939.

In each room you can sit at a café table, put on a pair of headphones, and watch a well-designed video presentation of the history of the period. Or, if your French isn't up to that -- and mine isn't -- you can examine the dozens of photos, beautifully restored and enlarged, with explanatory texts (again only in French).

Lindsey and I were alone in the Museum, and I was lucky to have a long conversation with Claudine Théolier, who presides at its desk and writes a fair amount of its copy. She filled me in on the economic history of the period, the rise of its fascinating first families who brought in rice from Piedmont to be milled in factories in Modane, who were instrumental in organizing the drive for the tunnel, who went into banking -- and who built one of the most fascinating factories in Modane, specializing in the manufacture of mechanical pianos.

The Italians brought us music, one of the panels in the museum quotes; They loved to dance. Indeed the first piano I saw in the museum, in the first of the cafés represented, looked very much like one we'd seen in operation in a puppet theater in Palermo last May. Claudine wasn't surprised: the Italian crank-operated piano, often drawn on a cart by a street musician in the 19th century, was apparently a source for the inspiration that led Desiré Jorio to develop his factory.

Throughout this period Modane emerged as a city, with its bourgeois banking and manufacturing society, its armies of laborers and soldiers, its skilled labor and its tunnelers, thriving at the mouth of a tunnel that united two distinct halves of a single mountain. Since its ridge runs east and west it clearly has a cold side and a warm, France and Italy; this alone must account for an enormous amount of temperamental difference among residents. But because the ridge was always a frontier, even when it ran through the middle of a single politically unified "country" (Savoy), there was always smuggling, traveling, innkeeping. Jean-Jacques Rousseau walked over the pass on his way to Italy, 250 years ago or so; Henry James was only one of many travelers who wrote about the pass.

We left the museum at noon, having spent nearly two hours in it -- I've only sketched its attractions -- and has a croque-monsieur at a nearby bar, when I realized I'd left my jacket behind. I'd taken it off to sit at one of those café tables to watch a video, and had hung it on the back of my chair. I'd thought of hanging it on a coat-hook on the wall, next to a woolen jacket from the 19th century apparently belonging to one of the Modannais of that period, but realized the danger of that; it would take its place among the museum objects, I'd overlook it, it would never be a part of me again (though a part of me would always be a part of the museum).

It was probably because I did not hang it on the hook, but on the chair instead, that I dismissed the danger from mind, and wound up forgetting it anyway. Nothing to do but wait until three o'clock, or maybe four, when the museum would re-open after Claudine's midday break. But as we sat with a glass of wine talking about this, a fellow walked by she'd introduced me to in the museum, an archaeologist who'd been able to answer a number of my questions (and who indeed I'd met two summers ago at the little museum he himself had built in the nearby town of Solliers). He asked why we were lingering, I explained, he called Claudine, she came by and smilingly let me in to the closed museum to retrieve the jacket. Thank you M. l'Archaeologue, and especially thank you dear Claudine; I am very sorry to have put you to this trouble.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lanslebourg, 3: the walk from Bonneval to Bessans

Lanslebourg, Savoie, October 27, 2010—
I BROUGHT LINDSEY HERE to show her the valley I'd walked a couple of years ago, when Henry and Mac and I walked the GR5 from near Geneva to Nice. (You can read my running blog from that trip at Alpwalk, or, more conveniently, in my book Walking the French Alps.)

My idea was to introduce her to the valley via one or two stages of the walk, not at all strenuous here, basically flat, in the hopes she'll acquiesce later to further stages. It's such a beautiful walk, so varied, through calm, splendid landscape, and dotted with interesting villages, good restaurants, and comfortable hotels.

Alas, Mother Nature chose this week for the first snowfall of the year. It wasn't all that heavy, though it made crossing the Moncenisio a little hairy the other day. But it did cover the walkingpath with a good three or four inches of snow, and we waited until this morning to try the first step of the walk, from Bonneval sur Arc to Bessans, a short walk of six or seven kilometers — less than five miles, on country road, then footpaths, along the northern bank of the Arc, at the foot of massive rock cliffs, where I figured the sun would soonest melt off the snow. (Other stages of the walk hereabouts are on the south side of the river, in the shadow of high mountains and through forest.)

We drove up to the little town of Bonneval and left the car there. Bonneval's more or less a vacation community of ancient stone houses, most of them with new or recent roofs and fitted out inside, no doubt, with all the comforts. The town was quiet; hardly a person to be seen; the houses not yet occupied for the season; few other cars in the car park.

(Bonneval prefers that you not bring a car into the village, and provides a good-sized parking lot on the outskirts. The two or three hotels are also on the outskirts, leaving the village free to imitate the middle ages whenever it likes — or, if I'm not being too cynical, whenever it's to its advantage, say for a photo shoot.)

Following my trail guide, La Vanoise (FFRandonnée, 2008), we walked through town, past the ancient stone church, and out a country road. Bonneval is at 1800 meters, just under 6,000 feet. I'd put on my long underwear and layered up for the morning, but though there was thankfully no wind and the few clouds were high cirrus it was still a little chilly. Nor had the snow melted: only in the tracks left by a few farm-trucks was there bare ground to be seen, and it was often treacherous with black ice.

Another point, one I hadn't though of though I'd run into it before: often the balissage marking the route, a white strip over a red one, is painted directly onto a low rock by the side of the path. Snow covers these marks, of course. Still, we had the trail map in the guide, and I'd walked here only two years ago; besides, the direction is obvious, you keep walking downstream holding to the right side of the river. There's no way you can get lost.

It was a beautiful walk. First you walk through open farmland, all of it snow-covered today, with only a couple of nearly invisible white horses and, later on, a small herd of cows to animate the countryside. I heard an occasional rook up in the cliffs, and once a more melodic birdsong. There was the occasional crunch on frozen snow, or the more amusing squeaky crunch on partially thawed snow; otherwise our footsteps were pretty well muffled, and the morning was blissfully silent.

At one point I mistook the way, not remembering that it climbed after passing a few scattered stone barns, and floundered down through soft snow toward the river, turning then through a small forest. Soon enough this proved a mistake; it was hard to work our way through the branches; we turned back up to resume the trail. Almost immediately we met a French couple coming up trail from Bessans, confirming the route. (They were the only other people we saw on the walk.)

Then we crossed a little brook, the Vallon, on a footbridge, at a spot I remembered feeling quite special in the summertime — one of those pools where you just know a naiad hangs out to help or hinder passersby, depending on the respect they show the site. And then, just ahead, there was what I'd wanted Lindsey to see, the Rocher Château, immensely high, black and gleaming with ice and icy water, streaked with grey-blue lichen and red iron oxide.

This rock was something of a village six or eight thousand years ago, offering shelter to Neolithic community and raw material to their economy, which centered on (besides hunting and gathering, of course) the manufacture of spear and arrow-points. The stone here is perfect for the purpose, apparently, and items manufactured here have turned up hundreds of miles away, apparently eagerly traded in those days.

The area was quarried as recently as fifty years ago, and one or two huge cubes of stone lie at the foot of the cliff from that time. But this is too important an archaeological site to succumb to commerce, and the State has set it aside. There are petroglyphs here, too; eight running stags, painted in the style of the cave painters of soutwestern France, but almost invisible now after so many years facing south into the sun. Four or five explanatory panels give the history, and a helpful empty frame on a standard is placed to help the visitor see what's left of the paintings.

By now I'd begun to get hungry, and half the baguette in my backpack disappeared as we resumed the trail. A farm road took us on into the hamlet of Villaron, where a tiny stone chapel stood at a crossroads, utterly dark inside but with one missing pane of opaque glass allowing a flash photo. Further on was a curiously rustic crucifix in a shrine set into the low stone wall: this is a devout area, this Arc valley, or at least a careful one.

Then in half an hour we were at the bridge crossing the Arc into the town of Bessans. By the guide we should have been here in ninety minutes without stops; two summers ago it took us two hours and a quarter. Today it took two hours and a half: we took longer at Rocher Ch âteau, and the slick ice had probably slowed us down, not to mention the little detour in the woods.

Bessans was quiet; not a thing open. No place for a hot cup of tea. The church and the impressive chapel were locked up tight as a tick, so the only frescos we could see were those on the outside wall of the St. Anthony chapel, whose interior boasts sixty of the most impressive frescos I've seen anywhere. The little churchyard sat poignant in the snow, the photographs of its more recent citizens speaking mutely of evanescence.

We found a bench outside a closed hotel-restaurant and sat down to eat our sausage, bread, apple, and chocolate. A black cat minced carefully over the snow. Someone unlocked the closed Mairie, went in, brought out four enormous pots of crysanthemums, and disappeared. A stout middle-aged woman waddled past, eyeing the ice suspiciously. An old couple, older even than us, walked past quietly: we spoke briefly: no, there was nothing open; no, there was no transportation back to Bonneval.

Bessans lay dead-silent under its snowcovered roofs. There was a very nice public restroom at the Mairie, though, so after our lunch, after listening to the church strike one-thirty, then two o'clock, we shouldered our packs and took the Departemental road back to Bonneval. Immediately a car drove past us: I put out my hand, he stopped, and we rode into Bonneval to drive back to the hotel.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Lanslebourg, 2: le plus beau pays

Lanslebourg, Savoie, October 26—
THE LAST TIMEI was here I was unimpressed with the area. Not this town, with its comfortable old-fashioned hotel, but the area, stretching from Bonneval at the upper end of the valley to Modane at the lower end. I was on foot, with my friend Mac and my grandson Henry; we'd been walking two weeks, having started at Evian-les-Bains on Lake Geneva, and were headed to Nice. We were a couple of days behind schedule; worse, we were down in what seemed like low country.

Worst, we were in civilization, after days in the high mountains. People, cars, machinery, noise.

This time, though, we've come here from the city. Same people, cars, machinery, noise: but so much less than in Torino, never mind the crowded Salone di Gusto. There's snow all around, which of course mutes sound; and we're not on a tight schedule; and we have a car, which covers the boring stretches so much faster, theoretically allowing more time for the interesting ones.

But we're between seasons, and many things are closed, or apparently closed. I wanted especially to take another look at the marvelous frescos in Bessans, but they're off limits for some reason. We drove into Modane this afternoon to see about its interesting museum, but it's closed until Thursday morning. We'll go back then, or maybe Friday.

It is so incredibly beautiful here. We keep stopping to snap photos, or sometimes we don't stop, Lindsey lifts her iPhone to the windshield — on the road it's not often easy or safe to stop. The mountains hereabout rise to nearly 4000 meters, 13,000 feet; and there are a good many of them, rising in blinding white above the dark forests, the bare stretches of dark grey rock.

The light slants in from the south, sometimes filtered to extraordinary effect by the yellow-gold needles of the larches — mégèves in French, what I've always called spanieltails because of their characteristic branches.

This morning we did manage to visit the chapel to St. Sebastian in the next village upstream, Lanslevillard. Our hostess called the mairie there and arranged our visit: like the chapel in Bessans, this one is a national treasure; you can't visit it without accompaniment.

Extraordinary. Three walls are covered with frescos painted by an anonymous itinerant, probably Piemontese, in the Fifteenth Century: two bands on one long wall, three on the other, broken comic-strip-style into rectangular frames illustrating the lives of Jesus and St. Sebastian. It's known the Sebastian mystery-play was given here in May 1567, performed by the villagers; and that a company of archers was stationed here at that time; Sebastian is an important patron saint here.

The frescos are remarkably fresh and realistic; you'd recognize these faces if you ran into them on the street — though they aren't particularly Savoyard: to my eye, the faces are Italian. Of course there was no Italy in those days, nor did France really have much presence hereabouts. We are in fact in Savoy, as the white cross on the red escutcheon reminds us on road-signs. Savoi, the Kingdom of Two Sicilies before that; France only since 1870 or so (and some territory hereabouts was ceded by Italy within my own lifetime).

This morning our hotelkeeper, the birdlike woman I wrote about in the book about our Long Walk of two summers ago, looked out the window at the snow-covered mountains and said C'est le plus beau pays dans le monde, the most beautiful countryside in the world. Then she started, and put her hand to her mouth and looked at us guiltily. They're all the plus beau, I responded, my country also: but this is extraordinaire.

It's also a bit foreboding. The edge of the cisalpine world, it's been defended from invaders — or armies merely passing through, but doing damage en route — for millenia. Hannibal brought his elephants through one of these passes (many claim him); the Maginot line ran across these mountains as recently as the 1930s. Huge fortresses dominate the skyline down around Modane; another fort is a tourist destination at Exilles, the other side of the Italian boundary.

It's a hard country, hard with rock, sharp with cold and wind, sudden with avalanche and flood. The summers are seductive, with endless miles of flowers among the sweet grasses that give Beaufort its unique savor. These days even the winters are deceptively playful, with ski-lifts and vacation chalets on all sides.

But down the street a monument to a dog reminds passersby of he danger in these mountains. He worked nearly a decade finding and assisting the victims of blizzards and avalanches; when he was ten, worn out with work and loyalty, he took a last walk into the mountains to die where he had served. His monument reads
Passant je suis autre chose qu'un monument
peut-etre plus qu'un symbole
je suis un example
Passerby I'm not a monument
perhaps more than a symbol
I am an example.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Catching up in Lanslebourg

WE'VE BEEN ON THE ROAD almost a week, but the first couple of days don't really count, of course; you're in the air, your mind is out of sync with everything else; then you land, rent your car, drive to an unfamiliar hotel in an unfamiliar city. That same night, last Wednesday, after 24 hours or so traveling, we went out to dinner with friends — I've written about that on Eating Every Day, of course.

Then we spent three days in the Salone del Gusto. Some reports from that leaked into the eatingblog too, but others will provide food for thought — heh heh — for comments on this site, later on, perhaps. Let's see:
Quality of Life
Disappearing apples
Sardegna, not Toscana

Today we drove from our Chivasso hotel, where we've slept the last four nights, over the Montcenisio pass and down into Lanslebourg. I wanted to bring Lindsey here to see this valley along the river Arc, from Bonneval south to Modane. I walked it two years ago, with Mac and Henry, when we took the Long Walk from Geneva to NIce. At that time I didn't really like it, but the more I thought about it afterward the more I realized I'd missed something.

I'd hoped Lindsey and I would be walking here, but the year's first snowfall coincided with our arrival. Driving the pass was a little hairy: the road was often covered in snow and sometimes icy, and toward the top we drove into cloudy air that tended toward snowblindness. It's a special road: we've taken it two or three times before, but never in this kind of weather. I remember the first time, when, at the top, we drove past the lake and saw a couple of girls, twelve years old or so, sitting in the grass, ostensbily watching their herd of cows, weaving daisies into a chain, right out of Heidi. They weren't out today.

We arrived at our hotel in Lanslebourg, the one Henry and Mac and I stayed in in the summer of '08, about three o'clock. We were cold. There was snow on the street. A fire burned in the hearth. The same birdlike woman met us, and was cheerful, and showed us to a room, and brought us tea back at the hearth in the lobby.

After a bit we drove up through Lanslevillard — yes, there were apparently two settlements named "Lans," one the bourg, one the villard — to Bessans, where I'd hoped to show Lindsey the amazing frescos. These are in a 15th-century chapel; Henry and I saw them on that walk: they depict the Life of Christ, and are amazingly concentrated paintings. But the chapel is off limits; we're not going to be able to see these frescos, not on this trip in any case.

Too bad. But we stopped in at the library, excuse me, "Media Center," here in Lanslebourg, and looked at photographs of the frescos in a couple of books. They were painted by an anonymous itinerant at the beginning of the 16th century, we read. Migration, again. Local saints are very important in these chapels, often protecting domestic animals as they were herded up and down the Alps. Another saint, St. Landry, was sent to Bonneval a thousand years ago or so, and drowned in the Arc river on his journey; his body washed downstream to Lanslevillard, where all the bells began tolling on their own initiative. A miracle: so he's preserved in the church there, and became the saint in charge of droughts.

Makes sense: a drowned man would know something about irrigation. I think the cult of saints replaced the local cults of local deities, lesser deities of course, dryads and such, spirits of springs and torrents, forests and bogs; protectors of virgins, widows, drunks, and domestic animals.

Yesterday at Terra Madre I heard a woman from an immigrants' rights organization say that "immigrants are the bearers of competence." I believe that; but I also believe that other migrants bear foreign authorities. Perhaps it only depends on from which end you view the spectrum.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Epic, Comic, Lyric: Mark Morris in Berkeley; Molière in San Francisco

WHAT AN INTERESTING, classically absorbing evening of dance the other night in Zellerbach Auditorium, UC Berkeley. Mark Morris presented three big pieces neatly triangulating his view of the human condition: a formal, geometric, abstract suite of dances in total silence called Behemoth; a funny, inventive, dashing suite to Kyle Gann's Studies for Disklavier called Looky; a moving, descriptive, lyrical three-movement dance setting of Erik Satie's Socrate.

It was a carefully thought-out triangulation, even though the bookends are twenty years apart in their composition. Behemoth (1990), which seemed to run a good three quarters of an hour, breaks the fifteen-dancer ensemble into three fives much of the time, running them — sometimes literally — through the repertory of Morris steps and freezes, punctuated occasionally by slaps, claps, or stampings but otherwise perfectly silent, demanding a similar silence and thus attentiveness from the audience.

And this year's Socrates returns to the triple quintets, sometimes but not consistently assigning them to unison portrayals of the philosopher or one or another of his student-friends (Alcibiades in the first movement, Phaedrus in the second, Phaedo in the third), again in symmetrical groupings moving either squarely or diagonally to the stage.

Looky, on the other hand, is all comedy and grace. Gann's score is mechanical piano gone crazy, always firmly rooted in classic piano repertoire, from Schumann and Chopin through Liszt and Gottschalk to Shostakovich and Art Tatum. The piano, bereft of human performer, stands upstage right; the dancers enter by ones, twos, and larger groups in what looks sometimes like party clothes, sometimes evening pajamas, silently miming conversation, arguments, puzzlement, joking, often dancing in response to the crazy waltz or boogie or incipient tango that ultimately dissolves in roulades of high-speed mechanical virtuosity.

I liked Gann's music very much; enough in fact to want to get a copy and listen to it again and again. But Satie's Socrate — now there's a timeless masterpiece, in more ways than one. It's so artless, understated, beautifully balanced and scaled; so moving in its modest self-abnegation to the pathos of its subject, that it overwhelms me to think about it. There wasn't even that much Mark Morris could do, other than move gracefully, repetitively, submissively to the meter and cadences. The costumes were lovely; the dancing itself superb.
WE DON'T LIKE TO MISS a production of a Molière play if we can avoid it, so even though it isn't considered one of his best, we drove down to see Scapin at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre yesterday. We had very fond memories of an earlier production, probably twenty years ago or more, also in the Geary Theatre, perhaps starring Réné Auberjonois in the title role, in a translation/adaptation called Scapino; memories which may have lessened the current version a bit, as it seemed a little more formulaic, a little less spontaneous.

But that's the nature of the play, whose adaptation of commedia dell'arte into proscenium-stage comic theater depends on formulae. Bill Irwin was a first-rate Scapin; Jud Williford was his match as the other clown/servant Sylvestre; Geoff Hoyle and Steven Anthony Jones were their matches as Geronte and Argante, and the rest of the cast fell easily into place. Great costumes and set; satisfactory musical accompaniment.

I complained a week or so ago about a production of Twelfth Night that too evenly distributed comedy throughout the three levels of society Shakespeare portrays: nobility, clowns, young lovers. It's wrong to do that, I insist, in Shakespeare, particularly Twelfth Night. It's entirely appropriate to treat Scapin that way, and I thought this was a very entertaining production — though the translation I remembered from so long ago, with its recurring
But what the devil was he doing aboard that boat
seemed a much funnier, not to say more memorable, version of Molière's
mais que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère
than did the present rather whiny
but — why did he get on that boat?
  • Molière: Scapin, running through October 23; ACT, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
  • Restaurant dining: a social contract

    COMMENTS POSTED RECENTLY to my post of a few days ago, over at Eating Every Day, about a dinner at Oliveto in Oakland, bring to mind a matter I've given a fair amount of thought to: the extent to which we all get the treatment, in restaurants and elsewhere, that we somehow suggest we want or expect. I was struck forcibly by this idea years ago when dining in a restaurant with a couple of friends who told the host, immediately we were seated, that they wanted ice water with no ice in it.

    To dine in a restaurant is to appear in public. Most of us, these friends included, clearly understand the forms involved in going to a restaurant. You're greeted by the host, who leads you to your table; a waiter appears, either with menus or with a greeting and query as to whether you want a drink before dinner; a busser appears to handle the water, bread and butter, and such things.

    You don't expect to see the host again, though he may appear at some point to verify things are going well. Your transactions with the restaurant will all be conducted through the waiter. The busser will continue to serve you silently, taking dishes away, filling the water glasses, perhaps replenishing the bread.

    Diners and service staff rely on these forms as a social convention facilitating the dining experience; diners and service staff interfering with the convention risk interrupting the smooth flow of the meal. The diner needs to be aware of the extraordinarily demanding nature of the waiter's job, the complexity of the host's (he functions as manager and spokesman for the restaurant as well as greeter and conductor-to-table), the numbing repetitiveness of the busser's endless pursuit of silent perfection.

    The service staff, on the other hand, needs to be aware of the desires, even the demands, of the customers, not only for their table but also for its effect on the floor as a whole, the many tables, each aware to one degree or another of its neighbors. For this reason the customer's demands must be given highest attention — even anticipated when possible. When a diner makes the first demand, requesting a certain table, say, or volunteering without question a preference for ice water without ice, he's all but hoisting a flag: difficult patron here.

    Over and over I've noticed three kinds of response to this. The optimal one of course is immediate understanding. This involves deference on the part of the service staff, but I suppose that's what "service" ultimately means; a professional host or waiter or busser realizes that there is nothing demeaning or servile in his metier — on the contrary: if unusual service is demanded, fault, if any exist, lies with the customer.

    The second is a deference to the patron that's accompanied by some expression of criticism on the part of the server. This is unfortunate. The customer notices it more often than the server perhaps realizes, and an unsatisfactory relationship develops which, since it's never really expressed, can't really be resolved.

    The third is the worst of all: everything goes to hell. Each side of the transaction takes deliberate steps to make the other side's participation more difficult, raising the ante. Voices may be even be raised; nearby diners are affected; dissatisfied patrons go away sulking and perhaps publish their discontent. (This is exacerbated by the prevalence of blogs and of "reviews" on restaurant-finding computer applications.)

    I've listed two demands triggering this sort of situation: table request; ice water without ice. There are many others:
  • "allergies" (many or most of which are in fact simply food dislikes)
  • split or shared plates
  • courses desired out of sequence
  • corrections of dishes implicating the kitchen's competence (salt, etc.)
  • inappropriate expectations (espresso machine in a Chinese restaurant)
  • and I'm sure others could be added.

    Friday, September 24, 2010

    Theater in Ashland, 4: Twelfth Night; American Night

    Ashland, Oregon—
    WE FINISHED THIS SEASON of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last night with a satisfying production of Twelfth Night. It doesn't make a lot of sense to have a favorite Shakespeare play, but there it is, Twelfth Night, about as perfect a play as you can get. The familiar devices: three social classes (nobility, fools, young lovers); slapstick; girl-masked-as-boy; shipwreck; separated souls reunited: and all in perfect balance as well as symmetry. And some of Shakespeare's most lyrical and poetic lines, from the opening
    If music be the food of love, play on,
    Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
    The appetite may sicken, and so die…
    to Viola's final
    And all those sayings will I over swear,
    And all those swearings keep as true in soul
    As doth that orbed continent the fire
    That severs day from night.
    and, of course, Feste's final song with its "hey ho, the wind and the rain."

    Darko Tresnjak conceived this production with Mozart in mind. I've always lamented that Mozart and Da Ponte never got around to making an opera out of Twelfth Night; it would have been a natural for them — perhaps if Mozart had lived another ten years. Alas, the Mozart Tresnjak had in mind seemed to be Tom Hulce's version in the movie Amadeus: virtually all comic, hardly any serious. The comic level Shakespeare intends was nively done indeed; OSF excels at Shakespearian fools and clowns, and instead of naming them I'll just refer you to the online cast list. But Orsino and Olivia are, I think, serious and troubled characters; their situations and pains are real, unless profound emotions are too much a bother — or perhaps too private — to be taken seriously these days (as I fear may be the case). And Olivia is partly of their quality, but partly too magician, a profound representation of the playwright himself. Kenajuan Bentley, Miriam Laube, and Brooke Parks were often very satisfying in these roles (respectively), but they were directed to mug and clown too often, throwing off the play's delicate but effective mechanism. Still, the play ended on a note of quiet beauty: Michael Elich's wonderful singing of the final song
    When that I was and a little tiny boy,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
    A foolish thing was but a toy,
    For the rain it raineth every day.

    A great while ago the world begun,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
    But that's all one, our play is done,
    And we'll strive to please you every day.
    and the play wasdone, roundly and beautifully, as had been done The Merchant of Venice the previous evening, musically and transcendently.
    The previous afternoon we saw American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, the first of a projected 37 plays OSF projects commissioning to recount the American historical experience. Scripted by Richard Montoya for development by the Los Angeles company Culture Clash, it was an intriguing, evocative, resourceful, entertaining ninety minutes of theater. Three big sections are based on three factual characters: Sacajawea, Harry Bridges, and Viola Pettus (look them up if you don't know them): they're met by the title character (René Millán) as he dreams in troubled sleep on the eve of a citizenship exam.

    Another section, perhaps the most troubling and evocative of the show, concerns a zoot-suited Johnny (Daisuke Tsuji), a poetic, rebellious youth caught in the Manzanar "relocation camp" during World War II. Somehow Montoya manages to balance broad comedy, poignancy, and political outrage in a persuasively realistic character here. American Night seemed to me the closest approximation to the Shakespearian humanization of social and political history of any of the many such attempts we've seen in Ashland over the years.
    Twelfth Night, through Oct. 8; American Night: the Ballad of Juan José (Montoya), through October 31; Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland; tel. (541) 482-4331

    Thursday, September 23, 2010

    Theater in Ashland, 3: The Merchant of Venice

    Ashland, Oregon—
    SO MUCH JUSTIFICATION for producing The Merchant of Venice was trotted out by the direction here at Oregon Shakespeare Festival that I was worried about what would be done to Shakespeare's marvelous, problematic comedy. It's directed by Bill Rauch, the company's creative director, who in this year's Hamlet uses hip-hop and technology to make Shakespeare "relevant" to a hoped-for younger audience. Of course one understands the company's nervousness in this epoch of political correctness: still, it's Shakespeare's play, written in his time, and reflecting (I say) an essentially evenhanded dissent from the complacent righteousness of both Christianity and Judaism: merely producing it today, faithfully to the text, shouldn't really offend any thinking playgoer.

    And it turned out the production, on the outdoor "Elizabethan Stage," was pretty straightforward. Like the previous night's Henry IV, Merchant began with a little vignette snipped from the trial scene, spotlit and amplified, as if the audience needs to be put in the mood, or told what the nut of the play is: this is dispensable, but essentially harmless.

    From there on it was an unremarkable production, unexceptionably cast for the most part, thoughtful, never strident, the currently fashionable latent-homosexuality theme nudged but not boldfaced, Shylock's hatred of the Christians clearly motivated.

    I was troubled throughout by the diction. Some of Shakespeare's most poetic language is in this play; too often it was spoken as if it were doggerel. It's one thing to portray Portia's exotic suitors — the Princes of Morocco and "Arragon" — as clowns; it's another to make Gratiano out a fool. Far too much of the expository first three acts suffered from off-hand diction, often nearly inaudible even only ten rows from the stage.

    The famous courtroom scene opening Act 4, though, brought the whole play to life. Anthony Heald's Shylock was ultimately outrageous in his demand, but never hateful. Jonathan Haugen's Antonio was dignified in his helpless resignation. And Vilma Silva, whose Portia seemed out of kilter in earlier scenes, was eloquent, her timing nicely calculated.

    For me the proof of The Merchant of Venice is the opening of the last act. Even here the opening lines —
    The moon shines bright. In such a night as this,
    When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees,
    And they did make no noise…
    were delivered as trivial singsong; Lorenzo and Jessica never had seemed aware of the magic of either their romance or the language expressing it. But when the irresistible continuation began to unfold —
    How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
    Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
    Creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night
    Become the touches of sweet harmony.
    Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
    Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
    There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
    but in his motion like an angel sings,
    Still quiring to the young-eye'd cherubins;
    Such harmony is in immortal souls,
    But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
    Doth grossly closed it in, we cannot hear it…
    Even here, Lorenzo punctuates "muddy vesture of decay" with a distracting mimed reference to physical love-making. But soon enough the musicians began to provide a soft, lyrical background; Roberta Burke (Fatima) singing softly to guitar and lute, Portia and Nerissa (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) quietly counterpointing their own lines in the distance house left. The effect was magical, even persuading Daniel Marmon's Lorenzo and Emily Knapp's Jessica. And me.

    The Merchant of Venice, through Oct. 10; Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland; tel. (541) 482-4331

    Wednesday, September 22, 2010

    Theater in Ashland, 2: Henry IV; questions of taste

    Ashland, Oregon—
    THE REPERTORY HERE leans heavily to Shakespeare: after all, this is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Every year we see at least three, sometimes five of his plays; if you return year after year, as we do, you'll see the entire cycle of history plays, presented not in order of their writing but in chronological order of their subjects.

    And while the Comedies, "Problem" plays, and Tragedies are often presented in one or another of the indoor theaters, the Histories seem nearly always to be presented in the semi-outdoors theater built in homage to London's (and Shakespeare's) Globe Theater. Last night, then, we sat in the chill of night to watch Henry IV, Part One. Perhaps it was simply an off night, but the performance seemed to me inert, with only Kevin Kenerly's portrayal of Hotspur redeeming a production that veered between overly fussy (but often funny) scenes with Falstaff (David Kelly, effective) and pageant-like, unconvincing scenes with the rebels and the royalty.

    Six of us had been discussing another play, Lynn Nottage's Ruined — two other couples had just seen it, and we'd seen it almost six months ago — and we'd agreed that while strong and well done in every way the play ultimately left us depressed and uninvolved: the human condition can be terrible, humans do horrible things to one another, but what's to be done about it? This Henry IV left me similarly uninvolved, though not sad or depressed. Young Prince Hal's sudden reversal of character wasn't persuasive; the Scottish and Welsh rebels seemed merely loutish; King Henry kept reminding me of a playing card. I have to note Judith-Marie Bergan's vivacious account of Mistress Quickly; her opening scene was marvelous. Otherwise, not an impressive account of a pivotal Shakespeare history.
    I MENTIONED ABOVE our discussion of Ruined. This of course is one of the major pleasures of our annual week in Ashland with three other couples: conversations about agreement and disagreement of tastes. Eight of us sometimes seem to see eight different productions, all at the same time in the same theater. (Well, seven: one of us — and it ain't me — is rarely expressive of his views, unless directly asked.)

    And it's not only the theater that brings out these interesting differences of taste: there's the daily discussion of Where To Eat. This town's not particularly an Eating Town; there are to my mind only two good restaurants — though one of those, New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro, is world-class, as all of us seem to agree. Lindsey says that Ashland's restaurants have a captive clientele, so don't need to excel at their metier; perhaps she's right.

    But among the available restaurants, as among the available theater, there's more than enough difference to provoke discussion, agreement, reservation, diffidence, disagreement. We're similar people, we eight; educated, well read, liberal, professional, experienced travelers. But apparently we come to our daily negotiations with daily decisions with different sets of experience-and-enthusiasms, and the result is different, um, postures toward arriving at those decisions — or, in the case of discussions of theater seen, conclusions.

    Example: the stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice directed here by Libby Appel, which we saw and absolutely enjoyed last March, was roundly condemned by the other three couples in our house as long and talky. It's a novel, not a play, G. points out. But one of the things that intrigued and pleased me the most about that evening was the success of the adaptation, and the fidelity of its dialogue to Austen's book.

    Perhaps the primary consideration in discussions of taste is engagement, the extent to which we're involved in a two-way relationship with the play we're seeing, the meal we're eating, the conversation we're joining, the decision we're approaching. God knows it can be difficult when eight individuals, equally strong-willed but variably willing to express those wills, negotiate toward a common activity. This seems to me to be precisely the subject of Austen's novel: pride and prejudice as motivating, expressing, ultimately confounding the successful outcome of negotiations between individual desires (or urges) and social context (or permission or repression).

    One of us mentioned John Steinbeck's The Wayward Bus earlier today. It represents a genre that must be somewhere in mind in all eight of us, though it hasn't been discussed directly (yet): the thrown-together-by-fate group of (usually) travelers whose differences somehow have to be dealt with in a moment of social crisis extremis. The only Ashland productions of this genre that come to mind just now are William Inge's Bus Stop, which we saw in 2006 (and in Glendale in 2002, I think), and Robert Sherwood's comedy Idiot's Delight, which most of us saw back in 2002.

    (The classic representation of the genre in literature was for a long time Thornton Wilder's 1927 The Bridge of San Luis Rey, memorably parodied by Marc Brandel's 1945 novel Rain Before Seven, which I re-read every couple of years for decades and must take up again one of these days).

    But I've been distracted: sorry. The subject was only one aspect of the transactions among strong individuals thrown together in social moments: taste, and what it is in our experiences that determines taste, or expresses itself as personal taste. Taste especially as it contributes to what we used to call discrimination, before that noun became inextricably (and wrongly) connected to "racial". (Discrimination has to do with specific choices, not categorical ones.) It's a matter for individual contemplation and social conversation, I think; and to the extent that it is missing as a subject, such contemplation and conversation is impoverished.

    To be continued, I'm sure…

    Sunday, September 19, 2010

    Theater in Ashland, 1: She Loves Me; Throne of Blood

    Ashland, Oregon—
    WE'RE BACK AT the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for six more plays, having seen the other five of the season last March. (Eastside View discussed those plays — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Hamlet, Lynn Natage's Ruined, and Lisa Kron's Well here, here, and here.) This installment opened with a study in contrasts: the nostalgic musical She Loves Me and the sober drama Throne of Blood.

    The musical was a constant delight, marred only by the amplification of the very good, versatile seven-piece band placed out of sight upstage center, behind the impressive set. Joe Masteroff's book is based on the Miklos Laszlo play Illatszertar, whose fascinating history is laid out in a Wikipedia article tracing its various stage and screen treatments. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick provided music and lyrics, and if they occasionally rely heavily on Cole Porter, well, that's not a bad doorway to lean against.

    The play was written in Hungarian in the late 1930s, apparently first produced around 1937 in Budapest, and is typical of the romantic comedy of the time: an aging shopkeeper who suspects his wife is involved in an affair with one of his clerks; the suspect is in fact so shy his only love-life is carried on anonymously in letters to a lonely-hearts agency; another clerk… well, you get the idea. Odds are you've seen at least one film adaptation: The Shop Around the Corner (Stewart, Morgan, Sullavan); In the Good Old Summertime (Garland, Van Johnson); and You've Got Mail (Hanks, Ryan). The musical appeared in 1963, when this kind of nostalgia was on its last legs for several decades: the post-1964 sexual revolution rendered it no more than merely quaint.

    Now, though, it seems old enough to have developed some respectability. Nostalgia has its place, awakening us to the lack of romance in our own time, possibly enabling a return to grace and whimsy. Here at OSF Rebecca Taichman's direction seemed both detailed and light-footed; Scott Bradley's sets and Miranda Hoffman's costumes found the best of the slightly vague period in play; and Darcy Danielson's musical direction was spirited and idiosyncratic. (If only the band had been in a pit, and unamplified.)

    Lisa McCormick was a knockout as Amalia Balash: a singing actress with a fine musical sense and a total command of physical comedy. Mark Bedard was complex and thoughtful as her foil Georg Nowack, and the rest of the cast were quite well matched to the principals. (Dan Donohue, who spends the rest of his time here as a magnificent Hamlet, takes on an athletic, acrobatic turn as a clumsy waiter.)
    THRONE OF BLOOD is a very different adaptation also involving both theater and film: a stage play by Ping Chong adapted from the 1957 Akira Kurosawa film adaptation of Macbeth. It seemed to me a fine piece of theater on its own terms, constantly referring to the Shakespeare play through Kurosawa's visual imagery but without relying on a familiarity with the film.

    Christopher Acebo's setting is stratified, with projections thrown against a stage-wide, narrow scrim at the top of the proscenium, distant and often silent action at rooftop level below that, and the main action beautifully centered on the stage level. All three sections balance well; the action is never distracting. (I thought, too, that this staging concept was quite reminiscent of that of last season's Macbeth.)

    Stefani Mar's costumes were magnificent — tributes to the complex, handsome, sometimes surreal helmets and armor of the samurai period. And Todd Barton, apparently himself a player of the shakuhachi, turned in what seems to me his very best work in the music and sound design: this is a play for ears as much as for eyes.

    Kevin Kenerly was marvelous as Washizu (the Macbeth), and Ako was every bit his match as Lady Asaji (Lady Macbeth): they gave deep, complex, intense portrayals of these roles, a little outside the ensemble I suppose, but justifiably so. Cristofer Jean seemed just as beautifully cast as the Forest Spirit, Kurosawa's version of Shakespeare's three weird sisters. The rest of the cast, however, seemed a step behind these leads, perhaps deliberately, as if to flatten out the drama behind the intensity of the major protagonists.

    I found the piece absorbing yet oddly inert and formal — again, perhaps the intention. I suppose there were deliberate references to Noh and Kabuki theatrical traditions, as well as to Kurosawa's film: but I found myself often thinking of manga, too, the Japanese comic-strip style that flattens narrative behind the two dimensions of printed paper. I don't mean this negatively: Ping Chong's work is engaging as well as intelligent. It'll be interesting to see how it plays the Brooklyn Academy of Music, this November.
    She Loves Me (Masteroff-Bock-Harnick), through Oct. 30;
    Throne of Blood
    (Ping Chong), through Oct. 31; Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland; tel. (541) 482-4331

    Wednesday, September 08, 2010

    Social capitalism

    WE DON'T TAKE that many magazines here; perhaps the only one I read more or less consistently is The Nation. Lindsey's father subscribed to it for years, after he gave up on The New Republic which had been his favorite into the 1960s. So we subscribe to it too, partly to keep his commitment to it alive. (I owe him so much, including the little political interest and liberal sentiment I have.)

    I read The Nation irregularly, though, tending to catch up on a number of issues at a time (taking "a time" flexibly, of course). Just now I'm working my way through last May, when the newsmagazine continued to arrive weekly while we continued to move through Sicily weakly. And most recently I've found Steven Hill's fine article "Europe's Answer to Wall Street," published in the May 10 issue and republished online here.

    Hill writes about "co-determination," briefly the involvment (not merely representation) of workers in the direction of the (necessarily capitalist) corporations for which they work. "In Germany," he writes,
    fully half of the boards of directors of the largest corporations--Siemens, BMW, Daimler, Deutsche Telekom and others--are elected by workers. In Sweden, one-third of a company's directors are worker-elected. To understand the significance of this, imagine if Wal-Mart were legally required to allow its workers to elect a third to half of its board, who would then oversee the CEO. Imagine how much that would change Wal-Mart's behavior toward its workers and supply chain.
    Americans are generally speaking parochial creatures, unaware of the currents of political and social beyond their borders. They — we — tend to think of Europe as broke and mired in the past, when in fact
    Europe has the largest economy in the world, producing nearly a third of the world's GDP. Indeed, its economy is almost as large as those of the United States and China combined. Europe has more Fortune 500 companies than the United States and China together, and Europe had a higher per capita growth rate from 1998 to 2008 than the United States. Long denigrated by US pundits as the land of high unemployment, the EU currently even has a slightly lower unemployment rate than the United States.

    Hill describes the irony of the American influence on the development of co-determination in Europe:
    The Allied powers encouraged this line of thinking, since it decentralized economic power, shifting it away from the German industrialists who had supported the Nazi war effort. In effect, US planners "punished" postwar Germany with economic democracy as a way of handicapping concentrated wealth and power, helping to birth the most democratic corporate governance structure the world had ever seen.
    A major result of co-determination, of course, is its contribution to the well-being of workers, and thereby to the quality of daily life in society in general.
    [T]he World Economic Forum in 2008-09 ranked Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands--all of which employ some degree of co-determination--among the top ten most competitive economies in the world. They are also ranked at or near the top of most lists for quality of life, healthcare and social benefits. That's not a coincidence, since co-determination allows for both economic vibrancy and more egalitarian social policy. And while the United States also ranks high in competitiveness, it is near the bottom among most-developed countries in healthcare, social benefits and quality of life.
    Hill's argument has perhaps been veiled by two distractions in recent American media coverage of the European economy: the Euro crisis brought on by social-welfare bubbles in Greece (and, potentially, other Mediterranean nations); and the strikes and protests now going on in re. the proposed delays of retirement.

    That last issue is an interesting one: in a period of considerable unemployment, early retirement, like shorter work hours, seems a logical social policy. It's too bad there seems no way of encouraging mass media in our country to present these discussions clearly (and prominently!) to their audiences.

    Sunday, September 05, 2010

    Michael Milani: It Happens Every Morning

    I'VE BEEN READING three books simultaneously: James Joyce's Ulysses, Victor Navasky's A Matter of Opinion, and Michael Milani's It Happens Every Morning. A modernist classic of fiction; a liberal journalist's memoir; a self-published account of the history and actors in the wholesale produce business in San Francisco.

    Damned if there isn't a common theme: the bonhomie — is there an English term for it? — of convivial men (alas not too many women here) united in an overwhelming subculture. And each author's book finds in the theme a common narrative quality, however differently expressed: overridingly entertaining, comic exuberance out of a context of (and here the books diverge a bit) privation, or disillusion, or hard work.

    As you might suspect, Milani's is the quickest read: 28 chapters and an epilogue in 325 pages of loose prose, not much edited, more enthusiastic than literary. Some of the pages may find your attention flagging; the accounts of the many produce-brokerage companies occasionally recall the Book of Numbers in their compulsion to include every begat, consequential or not. But there are so many practical jokes, drinking stories, funny asides, and improbable nicknames you don't dare skim over such passages.

    More seriously, Milani describes the changing character of the business, from the late 19th century when produce was brought by horse-drawn wagons from San Mateo county to the city (only the lead wagoneer awake, the others dozing behind him, trusting their horses to follow the familiar route) to the days of shrinkwrap and standardization. He records the in-fighting resulting from city redevelopment's forced relocation of the business, meticulously examining motives and methods. And implicit in the book is the Italian-American theme of family, extended family, and business, with occasional appearances of goons and thugs.

    Milani was born in 1937. In his teens he worked summers in his father's wholesale business, and it's easy to see why the camaraderie, coupled with a strong sense of family, led him into the business in his turn — after college, where he studied modern American literature, of all things. (I wonder if he read Pietro di Donato, or Frank Norris. Probably.) It Happens Every Morning — the title is no doubt intentionally a little risqué — certainly doesn't look like a Stanford literature student's writing: it's about as proletarian as you can get. But its portrayals of a century of change in a vital but largely invisible industry, and of the very human, smart, funny, fiercely competitive yet often surprisingly sentimental men who compose that industry, are truly memorable, in my opinion.

    Of course I have a fondness for this sort of thing. This book will go next to The First Forty Years, Dieter Tede's account of his own San Francisco-based Marine Chartering Company, and The Flying Cloud and Her First Passengers, an account of the first voyage of the clipper ship The Flying Cloud around Cape Horn, written by Margaret Lyon and Flora Reynolds. Very small editions, completely uncommercial, these books preserve both small but significant slices of history while celebrating the humanity and intelligence of amateur writing in the best sense.
  • It Happens Every Morning and The First Forty Years can be found, in short supply, at; The Flying Cloud remains in print and is available from Center for the Book at Mills College.
  • Monday, August 02, 2010

    Mitch Miller July 4, 1911 – July 31, 2010

    BECAUSE THE BASSOON was my instrument through high school, and my best friend Merton played oboe, a fascination for the double-reed instruments pursued me, or I it, for a number of years afterward. One of the first LPs I bought — second-hand, needless to say, there was never a lot of money around in those days — was a ten-inch Mercury disc featuring Mitch Miller playing the Vaughan Williams Oboe Concerto and a Pavane and Gigue arranged from vihuela music, I suppose, by Luis Milan. Miller was A&R man for Mercury and this must have been one of their first LPs; the serial number is 10003.

    Miller died three days ago, not quite a month after his 99th birthday. He must have been a marvelous conversationalist, and he knew his way around all sorts of music — the "Sing Along with Mitch" tv series eclipsed what were, to me, finer aspects of his musicianship. My copy of the Vaughan Williams is scratchy and hazy; I played it a lot in the 1950s and '60s. I think the Oboe Concerto is one of VW's best scores, neoclassical, not the romantic-English-pastoral vein too often mined by this curious composer. Miller's playing is clear, in tune, beautifully expressive. How I wish he'd recorded the Strauss concerto!

    You can download a copy of the VW concerto, how legally I do not know, here; there must be a slew of obituaries online by now, and of course there's always Wikipedia. I wish I'd known Mitch Miller; I bet he was a much more interesting and rewarding acquaintance than any of these references suggest.

    Tuesday, July 13, 2010

    Another bad taste in the mouth

    DON'T TALK TO ME about superstitions; I find them too useful to abandon them to the embrace of science. No sooner did I write about Harry's memorial service than I have another brush myself. Mortality's in the air.

    A blog is no place for intimate personal details: enough to say that massive chills and high fever sent me to hospital, where the service was wonderful though the food not quite inspired; after six nights, including a last bounce-back following too optimistic a release, I was back on Eastside Road a week ago. I'm on the mend, but warned: seventy-five has more physical limitations
    than sixty-five.

    So why bring the matter up publicly at all? Because it turns out some of you readers care about these things. I appreciate that. There were long nights when I contemplated all sorts of things -- night thoughts after hearing Mahler, someone wrote once somewhere, the title of a book I think. I saw Goyas behind my closed eyelids; that damn dog gazing up out of his pit. Oddly, no aural hallucinations that I can recall. Much thought of Montaigne: how I'd love to converse with him, in his tower of books. 

    I thought of the ghost community of readers of this blog, and I thought about freinds and family. Community means more and more. I think of those citizens of Paestum, 2500 years ago, and what their life must have been like, mediating between agriculture and trade; negotiating class and economic differences; attending, often privately, to the public shrines of the gods who meant the most to them; meeting in the market place and the temple; citizens, family members, individuals.

    We feel too often, I think, that we aren't subject to similar preoccupations; but for me another look at death, even though not all that close, brings out the universality of life -- universality and continuity. Modern man thinks he's a private individual, and to an extent he succeeds at that. But before and behind that we've been governed by the same instincts and desires for thousands of years; strip away technological advances and not that much changes. 

    (And we're also not individuals at all, of course, but immense populations of cells many of whom act as little sub-units of their own: but that's another story.)

    Thanks for the good wishes, everyone. I hope to get back to Sicily soon.