Tag Archives: Commentary

EUROPE SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: AUSTRIA (1B)

Okay, this is going to be a fast landing. I am uploading a cache of pictures from the Goethe Institute’s class tours for the second week: Vienna’s Insider Walking Tour of its oldest area from the Middle Ages; the collections from the Decorative Art Museum; and the Friedhof, or Cemetery outside Vienna, where many prominent and famous people of Vienna are buried.

As these posts are compiled from more than one post, they tend to be long. Apologies in advance if it rambles. Due to COVID travel restrictions, revisiting these past trips is a way for me to share and enjoy travel virtually for the time being together.

At the end of this post, I am including outer reaches of Vienna: Baden bei Wien, a resort area an hour’s drive from Vienna where Beethoven lived for a period of time, and Sankt Florian, a hidden monastery and delight outside of Linz, Austria, where composer Bruckner is buried under his sacred organ.

As mentioned in the last post, I am using slide shows for photos to conserve room. Don’t forget to click or swish on the images to scroll through each series.

Back Streets of Vienna

I had dismissed Vienna as being pretty dry and uneventful until the second week. The language class outings picked up the pace and delivered pretty juicy stories about the history of Vienna. In three prior visits, I was completely unaware of the medieval section of the city. After starting at the edge of the old harbor to the Donau, we wound our way through crooked alleys and a labyrinthine course, passing many exclusive cafes, shops and historic businesses. We emerged by the end of the tour at the doorstep to St. Stephan’s Church in the heart of town.

Decorative Arts Museum (Museum für Angewandte Kunst)

The applied arts museum offers an extensive collection of Baroque, Rococo, and Art Nouveau era furniture, household items, and special exhibitions..

The Greek Orthodox Church in the area was a reminder of the waves of immigrants who had populated Vienna and contributed to its growth and success.

Vienna Central Cemetery

Established in 1874, this cemetery reminded me of the one in Montparnasse, Paris. The loess soil in the outskirts of town was considered a better site for interment, especially after the cemetery had to be moved a couple of times. The first location inside the walls of the original city was bulging at the seams before long, so districts outside the city walls began to create cemeteries for specific ethnic and religious groups.

With so many people dying from the plague and pestilence in the 13th C, plots became scarce. Dogs were digging up the bones of those who had been laid in shallow graves and reintroducing body parts and diseases into areas occupied by those still alive. Soon these local cemeteries became too crowded. (2020 update: a grim lesson for us in COVID-challenged times!)

This time the cemetery was centralized. Cemeteries from individual churches were combined, but it created new challenges. Being nearly an hour outside the city, it was difficult for relatives to attend to their dearly departed. Administrators found clever ways to encourage people to buy and maintain plots in the new location.

They provided a grand church for services, leased and subleased unused plots, and offered a park-like setting with a cafe to enhance visits. There were strict rules to maintain supply and demand. A “Famous Composers” section with the remains of famous composers like Beethoven, Johann Strauss, Brahms and Mozart was created to attract tourists. The wealthy built artistic monuments and used expensive materials to flaunt their prestige and wealth.

It’s a pretty good guess that one of the Hapsburgs had a hand in creating nearly every institution in Vienna, and this cemetery is no exception.

Ba-Da-Boom

Thanks to the Alps, there are plenty of resorts in Europe endowed with natural spring waters. The Europeans love to indulge in the purported therapeutic value. The Austrians are no less dedicated to magical wonders. Just one hour outside of Vienna lies a hidden gem known as Baden bei Wien (Bad is not bad, but good, for “Bath”).

That is, if you count having a casino as a gem. It’s a package deal, with a free music performance nearly every day in the summer in a toned-down version of Las Vegas or in a Riviera Wanna-Be. There are also miles of garden paths for “wandering” (a German-speaking country’s favorite past time), pedestrian-free shopping streets, and Baroque-era historical buildings. I even discovered one advertised as: “Beethoven slept here”.

Aside from the cutesiness, this little town is an easy escape from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. Vienna is alot like Paris–overwhelmingly huge boulevards, huge art collections, and huge burning heat waves.

After a week communicating exclusively in German and starved by little or no English, my brain has had trouble with the cultural shift. Scrambling for a translation within whatever comes closest, glue exuding from my eyelids when I didn’t comprehend answers to questions, and the flippant responses emitting from my ignorance definitely caused Angst (a German word). Try a week of this and you will understand how I felt.

The planned mini-getaway with and from myself helped me to recover. Since there were no performances at the Vienna Opera House during the month of July, I searched my trusted operabase.com website and learned that the nearest opera performances were listed in Baden bei Wien.

The “operas” were more like musicals, but the underemployed opera performers were very highly skilled and talented. This was a performance of “The Vogelhandler”, or the “Bird Trader”.

Beethoven Museum

(2020 update: this was to be a year of celebrating the 250th year of Beethoven’s birth, but unfortunately travel and performance restrictions have dashed the grand displays of Austria and Germany’s claims to Beethoven’s fame)

The small town, not unlike Bath, England, yielded an unexpected find. Beethoven had spent many holidays in Bad bei Wien during his residency in Vienna. The museum provided interesting facts about Beethoven’s life, health, and companions.

Beethoven’s deafness was well-known, but he also suffered from various ailments. (See the diagram showing his various sicknesses.) His moving journal notes, posted on music stands, indicated how much pain he endured and how he tried to find doctors and remedies, to little or no avail.

Despite these illnesses while he was in Baden bei Wien during the latter part of his life, Beethoven managed to write some of his best work. The Ninth Symphony, the Eroica Symphony, and Missa Solemnis were among some of the pieces written while he lived here. A summary of his arrival in Baden and a sample of the various voices and instruments he wrote in his music are shown below. (Click on images to increase for easier viewing).

A video showed the individual instruments or voices presented during a performance of the NInth Symphony, with Daniel Barenboim conducting at the BBC Prom. The complicated nature and integration of pieces are demonstrated. Watch the colors on the left screen as they coordinate to the music graphically, while the voices and instruments are shown on the right screen below.

Although I didn’t expect to be coming to Baden bei Wien to learn about Beethoven, I found this tiny museum packed with moving and compassionate information about purportedly the world’s best classical composer. It made up for the operas that I had come to see.

I also managed to get a few sketches in!

St. Florian, Anton Bruckner’s Sacred Burial under the Chapel

As a contrast to my onslaught of cultural cities, I decided to take a different path and stay at a monastery in Linz, Austria.

My first glimpse of the monastery was breathtaking, after a short but determined path uphill through a winding path. The landscape in the area is exquisite, with rolling hills and tenderly groomed patches of yellow and green plots. You would never leave here if you were from this area, I thought.

The monastery has rooms for visitors at a reasonable price, and has daily performances of one of the most magnificent organs in Europe. The highlight will be another (gulp) mass in the evening with an organ performance.

Anton Bruckner, who was an organist and composer, is a native son of the area. There is now a trail connecting Ansfelden, where Bruckner was born, and the Augustinian cathedral at St. Florian, where he was a choir boy. You can read about him: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton_Bruckner

A billboard advertising the Bruckner Way is located on a path outside the monastery. It lights up each path you select among several different paths. You can view the Google image below. “Wanderers” can choose from the more mild “running shoes” paths and those for more advanced “hikers”. Trips run any where from 5-20 km.

The walk even has an MP3 player for hire that has all 12 Bruckner symphonies on it, so you can listen to it while you are on the trail. You can also arrange for a taxi to take you back if you only want to do a one-way trip. I thought that this was a clever idea and wished it was available in the U.S.

This path forms part of the “Jacob’s Way” and leads a pedestrian all the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I googled it and you can do it in a mere 19 days from here. If you “boots are made for walking” here’s a place to use them. This walk was one I had always contemplated doing, until I realized why they advised carrying a poncho.

St. Florian Upshot

Time to reflect on St. Florian, the Augustinian monastery outside Linz, Austria, where I spent my last three days. At first it seemed very grim and austere, but by the time I left I felt the urge to return. (Which I subsequently did with friends in 2018). It has its undeniable charm, and the offerings in the area were far beyond my expectations. The biggest draw, although I did not do it, was the Bruckner Weg, or Symphonie Weg. I described it earlier, but it’s hard to describe how excited I was by it. It combines my love of walking and music!

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It’s a great way to learn about the music of a composer, who was so dedicated to organ music, that he wanted to be buried under the church of St. Florian. And indeed, here’s a picture of his crypt in the basement!

I was able to discover this grand old monastery and its historical treasures that are now under-appreciated and forgotten. The library holds over 140,000 volumes and about 4,000 are original books before the printing press was invented.

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Other treasures were the performances in the cathedral itself. I took many videos of the two daily performances and the mass at six just to record the music. I guess it wasn’t really a mass because the monks all came out and chanted for about 20 minutes and there was very little audience participation. I got really curious about the Augustinians. Here’s a description of what I read in Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustinians

The interesting aspect is the psyche of monks. Apparently, monks here were high on the masculine scale but also had a very high preponderance towards female qualities of neuroticism and detail. Wow. What a combination. I wondered if I was material for monkhood??

In any event, that minor piece of information got me to thinking what could have motivated these men to join the order. I was surprised to learn that Martin Luther was an Augustinian before he protested against the Catholic order and the papal Bulls. Eventually, he got married.☺️
Others like him must have suffered some hardship or divine inspiration. The Augustinians also have hermits too, so their monastery is a perfect place to try out the lifestyle. Could this be how Herman’s Hermits picked their name?

As the monks left the cathedral, I studied each face. Hmm, older, tall, and pretty handsome for their age. Is that where all the men have gone? I’m still on the lookout for my single lady friends.

It all starts to come together. All the glorious trimmings at the expense of the people. But it was interesting to see the development of the environment and understand the conflicts that were subsequently caused by it.

I mentioned some of the wonderful paths and “wanderings” available throughout Austria and Germany earlier. Switzerland probably has an awesome offering, but I haven’t heard about them yet. Although I was unable to do Jacob’s Way to Santiago de Compostela (my 19 days were already numbered), the Bruckner Way or the Symphonie Way (the museum at the far end was closed for the month of August), I took a short walk a mile away to the Hohenbrunn Schloss. It was blazing saddles, so I had to shade-spot along the path. Before arriving, I stopped to enjoy looking back at St. Florian in the distance beyond the road (pictured in the header).

Hohenbrunn, shown below, is some version of a hunting lodge built between 1722 and 1732. No one was there except me, and for a few quid I could see the entire place to myself, unaccompanied. At first it seemed a little creepy, as it felt like someone had just occupied it and left the water running somewhere. And all those guns. The one I took the picture of was one-of-a-kind. It actually is used for shooting ducks on a boat, so the boat supports the long barrel. I’ve captioned a few of the other photos that struck my fancy as I pranced through.

Front of House
Front of House

The up close and personal with the animals got a little weird. They all seemed to be having Gary Larson conversations with each other, wondering where all the human pets had disappeared to. I felt like Ben Stiller in “A Night at the Museum.”

Despite my digs at the culture in and around St. Florian, it was really pretty sweet. It took a bit of courage and good faith to come here on my own, but I stayed in contact with my support staff. Many of you know, it is not about the destination but the process of getting there.

At times I wondered what I was doing. When I finally played my on-line music appreciation class that I brought along with me, I realized that this is real-time learning. I can hear and relate to music that is being performed. Ironically, I was at the point of learning about “Baroque” as in Bach, vs. “Classical” music by Beethoven. That was awesome!

I hope I can convince any of you to come back with me to St. Florian (as I did with friends in 2018!) The surrounding area is luscious and vibrant, and you feel the freedom to explore at your own pace. It’s heavenly to hear the organ and Bruckner here. And yes, I am a little sad to leave.

These posts are from travels to Austria in July 2019 and to St. Florian in 2015.


Future Posts: Continuing the string of cities connecting the Silk Road from Beijing, we will visit Germany next and highlight cities of Munich, Schwabisch Hall, Dusseldorf, Dresden and Berlin.

EUROPE SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Austria (1A)

For those of you just joining, my travels around the world included many UNESCO World Heritage sites in Uzbekistan, Russia, China, Mongolia; Morocco, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. Each year, I traveled to Germany to study German language for about a month. I continued to or traveled from China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam before finally returning home to San Francisco.

Many posts from these countries have been reposted since the advent of the COVID pandemic over the past four months since March under SILK ROAD ADVENTURES. Now, I am including European countries I visited as an extension to the Silk Road travels. These posts are compilations of multiple posts, so please beware: they are long!! You can find original posts by doing a search or looking in the monthly index.

I have condensed the photographs into slide shows, so be sure to click on the forward button to the right of each image to see more.

The Cultural Program at Vienna’s Goethe Institute

The Vienna Goethe Institute has an excellent cultural program, perhaps the best of any educational program I have joined. We started with a general city tour that gave us a good orientation to the center of town. Intriguing alleyways and amazing historic buildings are tucked behind major thoroughfares, so a guide is helpful to finding these hidden gems.

Fourteen students, most of whom are German language teachers, come from Ireland, China (Souzhou and Hangzhou), France, Belgium, England, Russia and Norway. I am the only American in the class and I am very happy that it turned out that way.

We have spent most of our time getting accustomed to the class environment. A full program of free guided tours of the city, museums, historic sights, and concerts are offered before and after classes. I am glad that I chose Vienna to study German! My only problem is that I am exhausted at the end of each day and have not had any time to sketch.

A word about my German C level class for my German language buddies. I don’t know how I did it but I was put in an advanced class. I figured the director got a promotion for enrolling more students in advanced levels. If nothing else, I got to experience what an advanced level class is like!

Accommodations, in true Viennese style, are generous and adequately stocked. You can see the view of the modern studio apartment below, that costs about $33 a day. It’s a great deal including the cultural program provided in the course.

Vienna

There aren’t as many tourists, thankfully, as in Lisbon. We were only spared for a short time in the morning until we hit the center of town at noon. The St. Stephan’s church was the crowning glory and has been completely renovated for googling eyes and ears. Concerts are held on a regular basis here for eager tourists who take in the musical history of famous composers like Mozart, Schubert and Mahler.

Vienna’s history is shrouded in the Hapsburg reign from about the 13th C.-1918. Thirty Years’ War, religious battles between Protestants and Catholics, Napoleon, and the plague set the backdrop for a violent past. Marriages between royal families in Europe sealed the Hapsburg rule for nearly 800 years, one of the longest standing regimes in history.

The main history of Vienna is focused near the Royal residences and the churches in the area. In addition, the Spanish Riding School where the famous Lippizaner Horses are trained, and the National Library with its fabulous collection, are located in the same vicinity.

An excellent introduction to three historic and beautiful churches on the second day was even more fascinating and helped us to understand the extent of power controlled by church and state. Austria was primarily Protestant in the countryside but Vienna was controlled by the Catholics and the royalty. The powerful relationship prevailed at the expense of the majority. It seemed to be another sad lesson to today’s world politics and the division between the haves and the have nots.

According to tradition, many of the Hapsburg family have buried parts of their bodies in three separate locations. Hearts in Budapest, innards and bones in two other locations in Vienna. The family followed this creepy ritual. The guide savored telling the English pun: “May the emperor rest in pieces”. You can read more about the Royal family’s whereabouts here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_Crypt.

You would be completely missing out on Vienna if you only saw St. Stephan’s in the center of town, the Opera House, and Mariahilferstrasse, the main shopping street. Just like we scoff at tourists in San Francisco who only go to Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s not what locals do. However, the center of town is useful in getting one’s bearings for the rest of the city’s bright and newly minted cultural activities.

Kunst Historisches Museum

This huge repository for the Italian and Flemish masters is an incredible collection of European art. The slide show includes the following in order of appearance below (but not chronicalogically): Breughel, Vermeer, Durer, Raphael, and Rembrandt

If you were wondering where all the artifacts from early Mediterranean civilizations had gone, you could probably find many of them here, like those in the “mummy” room:

Of course, no visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum would be complete without a visit to the cafe for Viennese coffee and Apfelstrudel.

The Museum Quartier

The Museum Quartier, tucked behind the Volks Theater, was an eye opener and inspiration for a visitor to this historic city. It’s alive with young people enjoying the balmy summer evening, amidst theater, dance, art, spontaneous outdoor performers, and of course, food establishments galore.

Originally a series of small villages, the district has been tranformed into a string of happening event spaces. Outdoor dining seems to be the order of the day. What’s amazing is that these are primarily locals enjoying their new-found urban spaces, with perhaps a dose of savvy tourists to keep the economy thriving.

Leopold Museum

My last-minute museum fix was to the Leopold Museum. Leopold was a private philanthropist who decided to collect art after he saw the collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and became a patron of the arts.

I was swept away by the entire collection. The “Modern” section told the story of the Vienna Werkstatt. Architects, artists, literary figures, and designers all gathered together to form the “Vienna Werkstatt”, that preceded the Bauhaus. Here are some of the exquisite design pieces from the period around 1900, in the Jugendstil:

Primarily led by Klimt, the group seceeded from the conservative Vienna Kunsthaus. The group then later became fragmented and Klimt and others left the Secessionists. He was also embroiled with the University of Vienna’s administration over the paintings, “Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence“.

We read and discussed this argument in our German class. Klimt was criticizing his benefactors. The faculty considered the nude figures pornographic and removed them from the ceiling where they were located.

This would not be so earth-shaking today, as many artists push their boundaries. Names like Ai-Wei-Wei came up. It was interesting to note, that while most of the European students were familiar with his name, none of the Chinese students knew of him.

You can read more about the Leopold Museum collection here: https://www.leopoldmuseum.org/en/museum/museum-history.

Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele was an artist unbeknownst to me. He donated his collection to the Museum, so it may explain his prominence here.

I was drawn to the graphic nature of his work, powerful compositions, and emotional content. Being an aspiring artist, I studied his choice of color, figure drawing skill, and architectural themes intently. If you are interested you can read more about him here: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egon_Schiele

Miscellaneous Pieces

Salzburg Music Festival

You may remember the Salzburg Music Festival from the film, “the Sound of Music”, where the Von Trapp Family made their debut. This weekend escape served as a finale of sorts for my travels. The ultimate purpose was to see “Adriana Lecouvreur” starring Anna Netrebko, Yuri Eyvazov (her husband), and Anita Rachvelishvili.

These are superstars in their prime in the opera world. I don’t know if there ever will be such a dynamic combination of singers performing such a highly dramatic opera.

The story takes place in 1730 and is about a theater actress, who became involved in a three-way triangle. There are many twists and turns about actresses playing their roles so well that they forget about their own lives and vulnerabilities.

This was Anna Netrebko’s greatest artistic challenge, not only as a singer but as an actress. You could only imagine what she is feeling after her own marital tribulations, on top of singing to her current spouse!!

Anna Netrebko, who did not respond to immediate audience approval at the end, was just recovering from her own performance. She was so immersed in the role, that she had forgotten that she was only performing! I could see how audience applause nearly destroyed the moment she was feeling. To jolt her out of one intense emotion of dying over spurned love (she won the battle but lost the war), the instant accolades were at first irrelevant. I could only imagine that feeling as it took some time for me to recover myself (from the performance, not spurned love!)

Earlier in the morning. I attended a Mozart concert. It was the usual Mozart fare offered by the Mozarteum Orchestra (who coincidentally played “Adriana Lecouvreur” at the Salzburg Festival.

I flashed back to one of my favorite movies, “Amadeus”. This came up in our class and was dismissed as “Hollywood”, implying that it wasn’t an authentic interpretation of Mozart. I defended the industry by indicating that the film launched the career of Milos Forman, a Czech.

Not being satisfied with my own answer. I googled “Amadeus”. You can read more about the film here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amadeus_(film)

It led to further searches about the producer, Saul Zaentz, who turned out to be from the Bay Area and a former agent for Credence Clearwater Revival.

The fascinating life story of the producer was interwoven with a legal case with John Fogerty of the CCR. It even went to the Supreme Court! You can read about it here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saul_Zaentz

Europe vs. America

As for differences between Europeans and Americans, awareness of the environment is one of the biggest contrasts to me. Europeans are more advanced in using public transportation and relying less on cars. They seem to live more modestly within their means, and are less focussed on themselves. I can still recall eavesdropped conversations between bratty entitled Americans that would make you regret being American.

On the other hand, the European food markets demand perfect quality produce. An article in the NY Times last year reported on food waste in Europe. It was evident here, pristine and among the most beautiful, even in run of the mill supermarkets. Perhaps their denial of GMO’s has to do with the cost, supply and demand.

Institutionalized Ethnic Food

The Currywurst in Germany started the downhill spiral, and now every immigrant dreams about his or her own ethnic take-away. Yesterday I bought my Japanese-style chicken teriyaki and rice from a hawker, who spoke in broken English but actually was Chinese. The fast food the vender was selling gave a mixed message—sell processed ethnic food that is predictable and a reasonable facsimile of food imagined from 50 years ago. Don’t worry about authenticity.

It wasn’t cheap—10 Euros. I can rationalize the overhead needed by families to make up for sacrifices in education, income and risk to reestablish in a new country. Perhaps gradually, authentic ethnic food will be appreciated as customers become more sophisticated.

This material was excerpted from two posts in July, 2019.

Upcoming Travel Series: Silk Road 2020

Based on last month’s post of Vladivostok, Russia, I have decided to create a new series based on my earlier world travels. Since 2014, I have traveled every summer around the world, ranging in time from 60-80 days. They were glorious events, going in either direction eastward or westwards in one direction from San Francisco and back.

You can read the summaries of each year’s trips in the header tabs above. But for this curated series, I plan to repost selected travels following the Old Silk Road. These travels were not necessarily taken within one year or in successive order. For instance, trips to Iran and Uzbekistan were taken separately, but I will piece the links together for you in a logical travel path.

Here’s a preview video of the first post on Mongolia (theoretically an extension of the traditional Silk Road). Refer to the second map below.

I am hoping that you will savor and enjoy the seldom-traveled UNESCO World Heritage spots that I pursued independently. Some trips were arranged through a travel company but were always personalized with no other participants. My husband and I traveled together, or sometimes I traveled alone. All trips were more than safe, fascinating and laden with a lifetime of memories and educational value.

For those new to my blog, I focus on architecture, planning, interior design professionally, and culturally on anthropology, art history, and a healthy dose (sometimes obsessively when available) on opera and music. Europe and Asia have been my primary destinations, but the areas that glue these two continents together have been the anchors for my recent travels.

I hope you will enjoy the revisits and hopefully they will feel as immediate as the original posts. Please let me know your thoughts, and I hope the reposts will be fresh and inspiring for your future travels–whether real time or or in your imagination!

Look for future posts on Mongolia, China, Uzbekistan, Iran, and Turkey, with a few side trips to the Caucasus, Morocco, and Germany!! I plan to post every week or two by early Sunday, PST (Pacific Standard Time). Below are a selection of Silk Road Maps from various points in time for dreaming, the start of any trip….

This map starts in Beijing and transcends the traditional route through Samarkand and Bukhara in today’s Uzbekistan.
This one shows the same route, with the extension from Karakorum in Mongolia (the capital of Genghis Khan’s empire, to Isfahan and Tehran in Iran

In this version, the western edges of the Silk Road are displayed, with multiple routes through S. Russia, the Caucasus to Greece and from Samarkand to Turkey

“Fear Dims Even the Sunlight”

John Howard Griffin, from Black Like Me

It’s been a dark and unsettling couple of weeks. I wanted to express my feelings but needed some time to think more about the events generated by the murder of George Floyd and the widespread protests about racism throughout the world.

Talking about Race

Today, the National Museum of African American History provided me with guidance and support. In its web portal, “Talking about Race”, it gives a helpful suggestion: start by reflecting on what race means to you. I thought back to what I read in high school, and a book that shook me into awareness. Black Like Me by John Griffin was a powerful account of a journalist who posed as an African American and wrote about his experience.

While the book may be dated now, it was an anchor in my first remembrance of the existence of racism. It effectively raised the disparity between black and white America. Empathy can be an important bridge to understanding what it is like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. In some ways, the book was more genuine and heartfelt than assertions from those who have immediately jumped on the bandwagon today.

Nevertheless, I am more encouraged by the worldwide movement. From middle America to London, Paris and Hamburg, major anti-racist protests taken place. It has helped me to validate what I have experienced in traveling throughout the world.

“Talking about Race” on the NMAAHC website is below:

https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race#

It’s important to share thoughts about recent events with friends and family in a safe and trusting environment. Like politics, racism is a deep and complicated topic, and there are no-fly zones with those who clearly do not share the same views. Here are a couple of other timely pieces forwarded from my daughters: a long article by James Baldwin in the New Yorker (Note: you may need a subscription to the New Yorker to access the article):

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1962/11/17/letter-from-a-region-in-my-mind

and a long conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates on why he is hopeful below:

https://www.vox.com/2020/6/5/21279530/ta-nehisi-coates-ezra-klein-show-george-floyd-police-brutality-trump-biden

While these sources may only provide limited views, they helped me to understand how Black lives Matter. Kaepernick was one of my heros since he took his knee nearly four years ago against police brutality. Since then, he has been busy training Black students at Know your Rights camps and committed to raising awareness. You can see the press release below of that eventful day:

https://www.hitc.com/en-gb/2020/06/04/why-did-colin-kaepernick-take-a-knee-the-lasting-legacy-of-protest/

I was heartened by the world response to raising racial issues to help make the world more accountable and responsive. Let’s hope we can solve both our social problems successfully in conjunction with the COVID epidemic.

Eighty Days around the House

Instead of eighty days around the world, it looks like eighty days around the house this year! Have you noticed that the light quality coming through each window is different during various times of the day? If not, you must not have windows that face each cardinal direction. Take a moment and look out each window.

Everyone seems to be posting retrospectives and looking back in time during the pandemic. It’s motivating me to go through the many past trips that I could share. Even if they aren’t real time, you might find them interesting. I guess I will have to change my tag line from “real time” to “virtual”.

Look for videos and posts from Uzbekistan (2014); Northwest China (2014); Macchu Picchu (2017); Easter Island (2017); Iran (2018), and the Caucasus (2019). And by all means, let me know if you have any requests.

MOM AND APPLE PIE

Restricted in traveling this year, I have been focusing my time with research on my mother’s life. As today is Mother’s Day, it seems appropriate to pause and take stock of my discoveries and revelations.

As a Chinese immigrant, my mother, Oy Lum, was in many ways the typical story of a hard-working woman who managed to raise a family of five girls single-handed, on a factory worker’s intermittent wages. My father was institutionalized, and like many Chinese men in the early 20th Century in San Francisco, was unable to find sufficient work to maintain a living.

Sun Yat-sen

What surprised me was that my mother had attended the equivalent of a women’s junior college in her late teens. This girls’ school was founded in 1862 by one of her ancestors, when women were unable to become educated. Sun Yat Sen, China’s father of the democratic revolution in 1911, valued women’s education, and he would have supported the progressive school. The story “Butterfly Lovers”, was about a woman who played “Yentl” in order to go to school.

Unfortunately, most attendees were unable to apply their knowledge to any direct purpose. There were no jobs for women in those days. The school didn’t have the political and economic forces of a Radcliffe or Vassar College to help. Students were ahead of their times but for what my mother ended up doing in America, an education seemed hardly purposeful. Nevertheless, my mother quietly conveyed the importance of education. She was the opposite of a “helicopter” parent or “Tiger Mom” these days. Yes, she did encourage us, but her primary focus was on our well-being and not in micro-managing our lives. 

My quest for understanding my mother comes from the many stories she told me as a child about China. It was definitely perplexing. My cryptic training came from opera films she took me to see in San Francisco. When I asked her if she lived like the characters in the classic opera stories, she nodded emphatically. And yes, I took her literally. She and her family wore the costumes, moved in stilted fashion, and sang in screechy voices. Nevertheless, I loved them as they remind me of her.

Many years later, when I led my mother to visit her village for the first time in over 40 years, she was somewhat unmoved by its rural appearance. She simply surveilled the environment and agreed, yes, it hadn’t changed much. Outwardly, her life in the U.S. didn’t seem to have much effect on her either. Whether in limited English or in a dialect of Cantonese, she was a woman of few words.

In the end, my mother is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California. It’s a timeless, picture-perfect cemetery that once forbade Chinese and dogs from being interred there. Despite options to return to China or being buried next to my father at the Chinese cemetery in Colma, she plotted meticulously and chose her crypt location in Oakland. After 98 years, this was not only her final home, but it spoke volumes on where she saw herself in peace and tranquility.

Fun and Games While Sequestered

If I were a carpenter…I could build the addition to our house in the backyard. And if I were a musician, I could post my daily performances like Igor (see igor-levit.de on twitter). I’d practice every day anyway, so why not share those wasted moments?

Unfortunately, since I am neither, I have to find my own diversions. I am spending an inordinate amount of time watching live stream opera performances. It’s easy to find distractions to multi-task during these long seances. I even reverted to sketching opera singers. They are perfect material since they are often standing in one position for a period of time long enough to be captured on paper.

I discovered this earlier while watching the Biden/Sanders debate (Featured image above). Politicians making their pitch at the podium is another excellent venue to stalk portrait figures. Naturally live and in 3-D is ideal but given our sequestered circumstances, who’s counting?!?

My last few posts have been focused on opera. Here is one last hurrah: if you are still groping around for livestreams, here is the ultimate, comprehensive list, compliments of operawire.com:

A Comprehensive List of All Opera Companies Offering Free Streaming Services Right Now

It will at least help you to imagine being in one of the many great opera houses in the world! The list should last you for quite awhile.

Just for some comic relief, I started some pilates exercises on line. Here’s one I am trying if you are interested: https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/ss/slideshow-15-pilates-moves. We follow the active exercises with a 20-minute meditation.

And here are a few photos from this week of daughters quarantined at an undisclosed location:

Be sure to share what you are doing during this unprecedented time in our lives! Are you eating and cooking? Taking naps? Writing a book?!? Would love to hear from you!!

Antang Village Notes

Antang Village is being preserved by local authorities to capture the history and experience of village life in China. It is one of four classified villages in Zhongshan, Guangdong Province, to be preserved.

The bronze sculptures told the stories of daily life and are set in intimate courtyards near my mother’s original house. Murals are similar to those in other neighborhoods of Antang shown earlier.

Finding the house location was a challenge as the original house no longer exists. But in classic form, we found an old fellow at the ancestral hall who knew where the house was located.

He agreed to lead us to the site based on the only picture of a wall of the house that I had. The walls of houses and granite paved alleyways provided a sharp contrast to the new artwork installations. These new additions were well integrated with the original village character.

I couldn’t help but think about the Italian village of Matera that Melissa and I had visited in January this year. Its preservation of twin hill towns was inspiring. The planners intend to preserve the environment for 0 impact from tourism while offering commercial opportunities to local villagers. I hope that the Antang planning authority will have the courage, wisdom, and funding to preserve this village in the same meaningful way.

In another moving experience during this trip, my cousin took me to find the gravesite of our ancestors. He goes every year during Ching Ming to clean the site of brush and leaves. For me, it captured the experience of many Chinese throughout time. They made the effort to respect and remember the shoulders of those upon which we stand.

Templemania in Guangdong

For many foreigners who do not share buildings dedicated to one’s lineage, going to a Chinese family temple would be a dull experience. On this trip, we discovered a repository of family history that not only answered many questions, but we developed a quest for more knowledge of one’s origins.

In China, ancestral family temples provided the heart and soul of each community. They gave special significance to family members with a common last name. Family histories and genealogy were stored in these cultural institutions and offered missing information.

We visited the Chou, Lum and Fong Family Ancestral Temples in Guangdong and Zhongshan, where our parents’ native villages were located.

Chou Family Temple

Chou Family Ancestral Temple

The Chou Family Temple, originally in Punyu outside of Guangzhou, was a spiffy display of the achievements of its clan members. It was well-endowed, orderly and refined. Judging by its size, educational content, and tidiness, there was plenty of support from both local and overseas sources.

Here are more slides of the temple gardens and architecture (click to the right to advance): A poster room showed the first Overseas Chinese who migrated to New Zealand among other illustrious clan members.

Lum Family Temple

The Lum Family Temple in Antang was simple, modest, and a bit neglected. There seemed to be little interest in reviving its religious function. Perhaps due to generations of scholars and civil examination administrators, there was less outward display of wealth.

Lum Family Ancestral Temple

See previous post for additional photos of the Lum Family temple.

We also collected big manuals of family history. The “juk po” contains the genealogy beyond 24 generations. Most of these histories recorded began with the earliest patriarch who settled in a locality.

Many Northern Chinese migrated south prior to, during, and after the Mongol Invasions of Genghis Khan. We discovered some awesome dates as early as 1017!!

Newly Renovated Fong Family Ancestral Temple

Unlike the solemn and serious nature of the Chou and Lum Ancestral visits, we had a completely unique experience visiting the The Fong Family Ancestral Temple. The Fong clan pulled out all the stops for a lively inauguration of its newly renovated complex..

We were invited to join a sit-down dinner banquet serving over 1200 guests. Acrobats, dancers and a pop singer provided home-grown entertainment in the large playground outside the temple. Activities throughout the day included a lion dance commemorating the inauguration and honoring the ancestors.

The traditional nine-course menu included duck, chicken, fish, prawns, and abalone in the shell. The string of roast pigs first served to the gods were later carved and served to we lowly mortals in attendance.

It was a raw and bawdy but authentic affair. We were able to witness history with the entire community, and gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of our family roots.

Visiting three ancestral temples simultaneously may seem like cultural overload. But by visiting these ancestral shrines in a row, I could fully appreciate the importance of these facilities that served past generations of Chinese and will serve future ones as well.

Inauguration of Fong Family Ancestral Temple Complex Renovation

Note: I apologize if videos are not viewable on your device. Posting graphic material in WordPress from China has been a challenge! I will try updating them after I return to the U.S. next week. Check back then if you are interested.

Day 57-60: So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu…from Salzburg

Apologies for the premature post a couple of days ago, to those of you signed up for notifications. I pressed “Publish” by mistake! THIS is my final post to everyone, with love, from Salzburg. After sixty days of travel, ten cities, and 11 flights (not environmentally correct, admittedly), I successfully completed my complicated travel plans!

The past six years have been amazing travels, from UNESCO World Heritage sites in Uzbekistan; two trips on the Trans-Siberian Express East and West from Beijing including Mongolia; Morocco, Iran, and this year, to the Caucasian countries of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. Each year, they were anchored in German language study programs followed by trips to various countries in Asia.

We often think of Europeans cities such as Paris, Rome or Berlin as destinations, and not countries to which they belong. This year, I learned more about Portugal and Austria than about the major cities that lie in them.

As for differences between Europeans with Americans, the environment comes to mind. Europeans are more aware and definitely ahead in terms of public transportation. They seem to live modestly within their means, and are less about themselves. I can still overhear conversations between bratty entitled Americans that make me grateful for my Asian face.

On the other hand, the food quality and waste seem to be lacking here. An article last year in the NY Times reported on the food waste. It was evident in the food markets (shown here, albeit pristine and among the most beautiful) and even in the run of the mill supermarkets. Perhaps their denial of GMO’s has to do with the selected supply and demand.

The ethnic food is institutionalized here. Just as we did in the States in the Sixties, fast food became the alternative to hot prepared restaurant food.

The Currywurst in Germany was among the first, so now it represents what every immigrant dreams about: its own take-away. Yesterday I bought my Japanese-style chicken teriyaki and rice from a hawker, who spoke in broken English but actually was Chinese. The fast food with a mixed message he was selling is a sign of the times—processed ethnic food that is predictable and a reasonable facsimile of food remembered from 50 years ago.

It wasn’t cheap—10 Euros. I can rationalize the cost for the overhead needed by families to make up for all their sacrifices in education, income and risk to reestablish in a new country. Hopefully in the future authentic ethnic food will be in greater demand as food origins are better appreciated and customers are more sophisticated.

Kunst Historisches Museum

This huge repository for the Italian and Flemish masters keeps an incredible collection of European art. The slide show includes the following in order of appearance below (but not chronicalogically): Breughel, Vermeer, Durer, Raphael, and Rembrandt

If you were wondering where all the artifacts from early Mediterranean civilizations had gone, you could probably find many of them here, like those in the “mummy” room:

Leopold Museum

My last-minute museum fix was to the Leopold Museum. Leopold was a private philanthropist who decided to collect art after he saw the collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and became a patrin of the arts.

I was swept away by the entire collection. The “Modern” section told the story of the Vienna Werkstatt. Architects, artists, literary figures, and designers all gathered together to form the “Vienna Werkstatt”, that preceded the Bauhaus. Here are some of the exquisite design pieces from the period around 1900, in the Jugendstil:

Primarily led by Klimt, the group seceeded from the conservative Vienna Kunsthaus. The group then later became fragmented and Klimt and others left the Secessionists. He was also embroiled with the University of Vienna’s administration over the paintings, “Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence“.

We read and discussed this argument in our German class. Klimt was criticizing his benefactors. The faculty considered the nude figures pornographic and removed them from the ceiling where they were located.

This would not be so earth-shaking today, as many artists push their boundaries. Names like Ai-Wei-Wei came up. It was interesting to note, that while most of the European students were familiar with his name, none of the Chinese students knew of him.

You can read more about the Leopold Museum collection here: https://www.leopoldmuseum.org/en/museum/museum-history.

Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele was an artist unbeknownst to me. He donated his collection to the Museum, so it may explain his prominence there.

I was drawn to the graphic nature of his work, powerful compositions, and emotional content. Being an aspiring artist, I studied his choice of color, figure drawing skill, and architectural themes intently. If you are interested you can read more about him here: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egon_Schiele

Miscellaneous Pieces

You may remember the Salzburg Music Festival from the film, “the Sound of Music”, where the Von Trapp Family made their debut. This weekend escape served as a finale of sorts for my travels. The ultimate purpose was to see “Adriana Lecouvreur” starring Anna Netrebko, Yuri Eyvazov (her husband), and Anita Rachvelishvili.

These are superstars in their prime in the opera world. I don’t know if there ever will be such a dynamic combination of singers performing such a highly dramatic opera.

The story takes place in 1730 and is about a theater actress, who became involved in a three-way triangle. There are many twists and turns about actresses playing their roles so well that they forget about their own lives and vulnerabilities.

This was Anna Netrebko’s greatest artistic challenge, not only as a singer but as an actress. You could only imagine what she is feeling after her own marital tribulations, on top of singing to her current spouse!!

Anna Netrebko, who did not respond to immediate audience approval at the end, was just recovering from her own performance. She was so immersed in the role, that she had forgotten that she was only performing! I could see how audience applause nearly destroyed the moment she was feeling. To jolt her out of one intense emotion of dying over spurned love (she won the battle but lost the war), the instant accolades were at first irrelevant. I could only imagine that feeling as it took some time for me to recover myself (from the performance, not spurned love!)

Earlier in the morning. I attended a Mozart concert. It was the usual Mozart fare offered by the Mozarteum Orchestra (who coincidentally played “Adriana Lecouvreur” at the Salzburg Festival.

I flashed back to one of my favorite movies, “Amadeus”. This came up in our class and was dismissed as “Hollywood”, implying that it wasn’t an authentic interpretation of Mozart. I defended the industry by indicating that the film launched the career of Milos Forman, a Czech.

Not being satisfied with my own answer. I googled “Amadeus”. You can read more about the film here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amadeus_(film)

It led to further searches about the producer, Saul Zaentz, who turned out to be from the Bay Area and a former agent for Credence Clearwater Revival.

The fascinating life story of the producer was interwoven with a legal case with John Fogerty of the CCR. It even went to the Supreme Court! You can read about it here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saul_Zaentz

Since this is my last post, I want to thank everyone for joining me. Your words of encouragement and comments were sincerely appreciated. I hope we will have an opportunity in the future to travel with each other!

If you haven’t already commented online, feel free to write to me at vifongit@gmail.com!!

PS. Further apologies for any mistakes in this post. I am rushing to catch my flight!!

Day 49-52: Ba-Da Boom

Thanks to the Alps, there are plenty of resorts in Europe endowed with natural spring waters. The Europeans love to indulge in the purported therapeutic value. The Austrians are no less dedicated to magical wonders. Just one hour outside of Vienna lies a hidden gem known as Baden bei Wien (Bad is not bad, but good, for “Bath”).

That is, if you count having a casino as a gem. It’s a package deal, with a free music performance nearly every day in the summer in a toned-down version of Las Vegas or in a Riviera Wanna-Be. There are also miles of garden paths for “wandering” (a German-speaking country’s favorite past time), pedestrian-free shopping streets, and Baroque-era historical buildings. I even discovered one advertised as: “Beethoven slept here”.

Aside from the cutesiness, this little town is an easy escape from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. Vienna is alot like Paris–overwhelmingly huge boulevards, huge art collections, and huge burning heat waves.

After a week communicating exclusively in German and starved by little or no English, my brain has had trouble with the cultural shift. Scrambling for a translation within whatever comes closest, glue exuding from my eyelids when I didn’t comprehend answers to questions, and the flippant responses emitting from my ignorance definitely caused Angst (a German word). Try a week of this and you will understand how I felt.

The planned mini-getaway with and from myself helped me to recover. Since there were no performances at the Vienna Opera House during the month of July, I searched my trusted opera.com website and learned that the nearest opera performances were listed in Baden bei Wien.

The “operas” were more like musicals, but the underemployed opera performers were very highly skilled and talented. This was a performance of “The Vogelhandler”, or the “Bird Trader”.

Beethoven Museum

The small town, not unlike Bath, England, yielded an unexpected find. Beethoven had spent many holidays in Bad bei Wien during his residency in Vienna. The museum provided interesting facts about Beethoven’s life, health, and companions.

Beethoven’s deafness was well-known, but he also suffered from various ailments. (See the diagram showing his various sicknesses.) His moving journal notes, posted on music stands, indicated how much pain he endured and how he tried to find doctors and remedies, to little or no avail.

Despite these illnesses while he was in Baden bei Wien during the latter part of his life, Beethoven managed to write some of his best work. The Ninth Symphony, the Eroica Symphony, and Missa Solemnis were among some of the pieces written while he lived here. A summary of his arrival in Baden and a sample of the various voices and instruments he wrote in his music are shown below. (Click on images to increase for easier viewing).

A video showed the individual instruments or voices presented during a performance of the NInth Symphony, with Daniel Barenboim conducting at the BBC Prom. The complicated nature and integration of pieces are demonstrated. Watch the colors on the left screen as they coordinate to the music graphically, while the voices and instruments are shown on the right screen below.

Although I didn’t expect to be coming to Baden bei Wien to learn about Beethoven, I found this tiny museum packed with moving and compassionate information about purportedly the world’s best classical composer. It made up for the operas that I had come to see.

I also managed to get a few sketches in!