Tag Archives: Commentary

CONSTRUCTIVE TRAVELING

During the early days of the pandemic and restrictive travel in 2020, I republished earlier Silk Road travels taken between 2014 and 2019. They started in Mongolia and China, and followed a string of Eurasian countries through Uzbekistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey. Like ancient traders, Europe was the final destination.

In November, 2020, I started a Pandemic Diary that traced five months of travel in New Zealand. Our family enjoyed the luxuries of a COVID-free country, that bit the bullet early with strict lockdowns in the Spring of 2020. We went to the cinema, restaurants, performances and indoor shopping the same as we did in the States pre-COVID. As reported, being in a bubble felt strange and lonely. We were not able to share our experience with others as the rest of the world suffered.

Until now, I have recorded events and activities surrounding physical travel. We aren’t likely to see the end of the pandemic soon, so what’s next? In addition to continuing the Pandemic Diary, I’ve decided to switch to a different kind of adventure. I’m going to share Travels with Myself and Others through a building project on our property.

Like travel, construction involves planning, design, a budget, and a schedule. You meet new people, and learn about their social, political and cultural habits. These individuals impact our lives. And of course, many decisions need to be made, and changed. Stories will be hatching and churning as we continue to live in our house during construction.

What is an “ADU”?

Commonly referred to as an “in-law” unit, the ADU (accessory dwelling unit) we are building is an opportunity for residential owners to provide direly needed housing. Cities want landlords to legalize non-conforming spaces or to develop units to increase the housing supply. Both cities and the State of California offer favorable legislation to homeowners and even offer permit fee waivers to build more housing units.

Our goals for the project are to develop multi-generational housing, allow seniors to remain in place, and to provide rental housing. After two years of planning, design, and final permit approval, construction is underway. The project adds two bedrooms, two baths, and an office to the rear of our existing home on two levels.

THREE ARCHITECTS AND A BABY

My daughter, an architect, is acting as the construction manager for the project. She is job-sharing her daily tasks of looking after her one-year old baby with her partner (an architect) and me (also an architect). As Owner-Design-Builders, we are multi-multi-multi-tasking! I’ll be posting some observations through the eyes of Grandson Felix who is watching all the construction unfolding before his very eyes.

PROJECT KICK-OFF

7:45am:  Demo contractors showed up on time to start the demolition of the existing kitchen. We needed to remove a “pop-out” projection that will be displaced by future ADU space. I explained what appliances would be kept, and which ones would go. The two workmen wanted to make sure that the temporary toilet was functional.

Portable Toilet tucked under the trees

8:30am: Project Supervisor arrived to confirm where the appliances were going to be moved. They demolished the granite countertop and removed each section of cabinetry. They moved the refrigerator into the dining room. The existing cooktop and dishwasher were moved into the garage The vent hood and the sink were discarded. We were undecided about the double oven so kept it in place for the time being.

Noon: The two workmen took a lunch break and slept in their cars. There was the occasional banging from the tile or granite being cracked into pieces for removal.

4:00pm: They removed the doors to the casework and a portion of the vent duct. The plumber showed up to cap the gas and water mains to the kitchen.

When I asked the plumber for his name. He blurted out “Fong!” so of course I delighted in telling him that his last name was the same as mine. He asked me if I was from Hoi Ping (a densely populated agricultural district where many local Chinese Americans families in San Francisco are rooted). I detected a slight disappointment when I told him that I was from another district, Zhongshan. That was the end of our brief conversation in Chinese.

5:30pm: The work stopped. The photos show the countertop removed and the remains of the kitchen at the end of the day. 

Since the kitchen was going to be “down” for at least awhile, we converted the dining room to a makeshift kitchen. We purchased a used hot plate and convection oven from Facebook, an Ikea sink for $127, and recruited four existing rice cookers for active duty!

PANDEMIC DIARY SAN FRANCISCO, CA (Week 24-26)

After returning to the Bay Area a couple of weeks ago, I have reflected on the past five months in New Zealand. I was able to join my daughter Julianne and her partner Jeff, who brought a newcomer into the family. Felix, born in New Zealand in July of 2020, is the joy of my life and the flower that bloomed despite the pandemic.

Already nine months old, Felix is a thriving infant learning all the motor skills for life from crawling, scaling stairs, picking up tidbits of food from the floor, and eating drumsticks with two fists. He has manifestations of a toddler and exercises his emotions and desires. As a new mother, daughter Julianne is now an exclusive member of the club that is celebrated today on Mother’s Day.

In the two weeks I have been home, the first week was a reverse-order process to traveling to New Zealand. I self-isolated as recommended by the CDC for a week to make sure that I didn’t catch anything on the flight home from Christchurch to San Francisco. I got a COVID-19 PCR test three days before the flight and three days after the flight. And I was able to get the first dose vaccine within a few days of arrival.

Despite all the worries, the transition was very smooth. Yes, I was very nervous and anxious about coming home. The daily news feeds from both sides of the ocean kept me informed. Yet everything appeared to be calm, improving, and with reason to be cautiously optimistic.

American friends still living abroad may be curious about my experience returning to the U.S. At this moment in time and in the Bay Area, it is about as good as it gets. The Bay Area has one of the highest compliance stats in the country. However, there is no guarantee that the present is indicative of the future.

The newly formed Australia-New Zealand bubble allows travel between the two countries. My layover in Sydney occurred the first weekend the “green zone” was created. Domestic flights were busy. Most travelers were reuniting with their families. Airport lounges in both airports were operating, but the international flight from Sydney to San Francisco was nearly empty.

American Customs and Immigration was smooth for returning U.S. citizens. After a taxi ride home, I picked up my car to drive to Daughter Melissa’s apartment in Oakland to self-isolate. It was a therapeutic week in the sunny East Bay. I took daily walks through the Crocker Highlands neighborhood where I grew up and was intoxicated by frequent stands of jasmine and perfume from other Spring blooms.

Fong & Daughter Julianne reunited the second week. I was able to clutch Felix again after a brief hiatus in transit between countries. We all sighed a sign of relief once we were able to dodge yet another pandemic bullet.

We celebrated Mother’s Day by walking a mile to our Golden Gate Park, enjoying the newly minted Ferris Wheel ride, and having lunch outdoors at the DeYoung Museum. It was a day to relish among other families. They maintained clear bubble distance, both designated and unspoken, from other groups. Everyone seemed to know how precious the moments with friends and family were, and to not violate it for others.

PANDEMIC DIARY, CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND: WEEK 23

(Photo above: Chestnuts foraged from hundred-year-old trees at Hagley Golf Course and Park)

In last week’s post I expected that I would be writing from home in San Francisco. Yet I want to share a few last lingering and loving thoughts about New Zealand.

I haven’t changed my mind about leaving New Zealand to return to the U.S, but I feel melancholy and wistful. Yes, it feels like I am swimming upstream and inconceivably towards more harm than away from it. For me, it is time to return to the real world, while having escaped from it for a while. I have been to the far side of paradise but I should leave it, now that I have been here.

After five months here, I relished the many positive points about this tiny island nation. Tourists rave about its pristine beauty. For those fortunate to live here beyond a dream vacation, they will find a life worth living.

Along the Avon River in Christchurch on a lazy Sunday afternoon
Pandemic Management

Today, as New Zealand joins the bubble with its big cousin, Australia, there are new protocols. Health providers must suit up fully to administer COVID tests. The requirements change frequently as the level of safety varies. Only half of the population approve of the new bubble and another quarter are ambivalent about the changes.

In my observation and experience, New Zealanders are courteous, cautious and conservative. Those have been the trademarks of managing the pandemic successfully. They wait for the science to prove itself, so there is no rush to vaccinate. Patience is a virtue. There will be enough doses for everyone, whether you hold residency or not.

Strong family values fostered by the Maori community are often mentioned in the media. Bilingual messages delivered through public media spread the latest information about COVID-10, the importance of getting vaccinated, and personal hygiene measures to avoid COVID.

Farewell to a Cute Country

New Zealand is a country I would describe as “cute”. Its people, land formations, and customs give me a warm and endearing feeling. While it’s also “rugged” or “raw”, I am drawn to its mild-mannered people, their mindfulness, and their ability to be kind.

A Dedicated Street Performer

I don’t intend to compare the pros and cons of New Zealand characteristics with ours in the US. The world can learn alot from this tiny country that could. Over the past months, I have grown fond of New Zealanders, their tenacity, and can-do mentality. I will really miss New Zealand.

Historic working trams

Yes, back to masks. And I will perhaps be deterred from many freedoms already offered here: get my hair cut, go to a movie or attend a concert, or ride the bus mask-free. Hug friends and family readily. But maybe one day. Soon.

Four Strings, A Soprano and Four Suits: a live performance in Christchurch yesterday afternoon

Farewell, New Zealand! Til we meet again.

PANDEMIC DIARY FROM CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND: WEEKS 20-22

The decision has been made. I am returning to the States after nearly a half year in New Zealand. Following the news on both sides of the Pacific has been fraught with uncertainty. My reasons for returning only slightly outweigh remaining in this picture-perfect island paradise on earth.

First of all, there may not be an active vaccination program in New Zealand until July. Word has it that it can be as early as May, but there is no assurance of that. Extending a stay here to complete both vaccinations would require complicated housing, flight arrangements, and family decisions.

Returning to the States involves where, when and how to be vaccinated. With anyone over 16 being eligible, the appointments will be much more competitive. The race against variants is worrying. Flights and the quarantine process on arrival require reverse-engineering the outbound San Francisco to New Zealand process.

On return, I do not look forward to the restrictions and mask-wearing, After savoring so many natural and human facial gestures throughout New Zealand, it will take some time to readjust. I’m not sure where the real world is anymore.

As part of my farewell, I made a special purpose visit to Marlborough Country. It’s famous throughout the world for its Sauvignon Blanc wines. Similar to the Sonoma Coast, the climate is milder for producing the whites that are delicate and flavorful. The vineyards are pristine and unlike other wine regions I have seen.

It’s not the Destination, but the Journey….

One of the two great rail journeys based from Christchurch plies the northeastern coast of New Zealand to Blenheim. (The other journey is through Arthur’s Pass to Greymouth on the West Coast). This coastal journey takes about five hours, where you can opt for a four-course dining experience during the trip or enjoy coach seating with access to a cafe and outdoor car. And yes, for now people travel maskless but are very conscientious in recording their whereabouts on a contact tracing app installed on smartphones.

The pastoral landscapes with rolling hills carved by many of the rivers and 27 earthquake faults, vast farmlands along the Canterbury Plain, and direct views of the Pacific Ocean (on the east coast here) were spectacular and helped me to momentarily forget my future travel woes.

By the way, everything in New Zealand is backwards to what Americans are used to! Driving on the left side of the road, water running down the drain counterclockwise, the strongest sun in the north, and Christmas in the summer are just a few phenomena to keep you wondering and on your toes.

Cloudy Bay and Wither Hills Wineries and Vineyards
Cloudy Bay Winery, the cleanest, healthiest vines I have seen anywhere in the world

As mentioned earlier, coming to paradise with freedom to move about can be a lonely experience. Friends and family in the States are unlikely to understand or relate to my time here. Maybe astronauts who have traveled to outer space feel the same isolation. Nevertheless, I am grateful that I came and will find ways to cope.

Sketching and Exploring at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

In a recent sketching event at St. Paul’s Church in Northcote, I couldn’t help but notice the tombstones included in my sketch. It took a second visit to the church to read the epitaphs to long lost and forgotten individuals. How fleeting is a mortal life! We are specks of dust that appear and disappear in a flash of light. The stone monuments in the graveyard attempted to extend the memories of an individual, until they also eventually disappear and are forgotten.

A few of the moving epitaphs of children who died over 100 years ago are captured in the attached slide show. It may be a bit difficult to decipher, but worth zooming . A few quotes on the stones gave me a glimpse of each individual. I could sense the deep love devoted to them by their families.

More Sketching

Continuing on a roll from the 100 People One Week Challenge, I found more subjects to sketch at the Mediterranean Cafe and at the Willowbank Cafe. And continuing the Zoom Portrait Parties from the Bay Area hosted by Jen and Govind has been a godsend. I painted my interpretation of a painting by Klimt below.

Before long, I will be back in the U-S-S-A. I am somewhat sad and ambivalent about the return home, as New Zealand has provided a semblance of normality in an abnormal world. As this is probably my last post from Christchurch, New Zealand. I hope you have enjoyed them! Please let me know, and look for my report next from San Francisco!

PANDEMIC DIARY FROM CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND: WEEK 11

I follow RNZ, or Radio New Zealand, daily as a source for local information in the country. The feed earlier this week reported a COVID-19 case, where the virus was transmitted to two health care workers in a Christchurch quarantine facility last November, 2020.

Russian sea crew staying at the hotel spread the virus when they walked through hotel corridors to the smoking area outside. Sometimes they went up to 4 times an hour, so the movement was significant. They infected two health care personnel in the hotel through microaerosols in the air. After discovering that, the Ministry of Health put crew in single rooms (previously they had shared rooms) with balconies so the crewmen could smoke directly adjacent to their rooms without having to go through the corridors to do so.

This is just a good example how easily the virus can be transmitted. Knowledge about personal behavior and simple modifications can avoid transmission. But it is a huge challenge to change human behavior. It’s already difficult to convince people to wear masks. To ask them to refrain from smoking would be impossible.

In another story I read in the New York Times, a journalist traveling by car across the U.S. discovered little or no mask wearing during his stops. He was traveling from Connecticut to St. Louis to take his mother to meet a relative. The journalist was appalled at the lack of compliance in mask wearing. Signs were posted everywhere, but no one was complying.

This journalist’s report was discouraging to me. It didn’t give me much confidence in rushing back to the U.S., despite promising plans to vaccinate everyone. In the mean time, we continue to live safely in New Zealand. We take each day at a time and wait to see whether conditions will improve in the States.

We go about our daily activities, visiting the local library, shopping at the supermarket, running errands in town, and enjoying New Zealand’s beautiful, pristine environment. The oceans surrounding the islands and the mountains carved by earthquakes and volcanic activity are clearly visible everywhere. Sun, wind, and rain change constantly from hour to hour, so the weather is, yes, a major topic of discussion.

Mt. Pleasant

A hike up to the top of Mt. Pleasant near the house we are renting gave us spectacular views of Christchurch. The harbor at Ferrymead, beach at Sumner and many inlets along the bay provide housing sites with views to cherish. Paved and gravel roads to outlying areas lead to many walks and pathways for hikers and bikers. (See featured photo above)

Sumner Beach
Sumner Beach, with Cave Rock

Taking strolls along the Esplanade reminded me of the fancy turn-of-the-century promenades I imagine along Brighton in the U.K. Today they are filled with surfers, families, and foreign visitors. The scene looks very SoCal or something out of La Jolla. Like in Papamoa, the distance from car to beach is only a few steps.

Unfortunately, this Sumner building is a sad reminder of the earthquake in 2011. The first earthquake in Canterbury weakened the structures in Christchurch, then a second one in Lyttelton caused most of damage to buildings like this one. Buildings still standing vacant are looking for a developer to raze and renovate.

Sketching

Finally, a chance to sketch via Zoom with local Bay Area sketchers!

Pandemic Diary from PAPAMOA, New Zealand: week 4

Officially, we are just completing Week 2 of our “Freedom from COVID” visit to New Zealand. We spent the first two weeks in a managed isolation facility after leaving San Francisco on a flight to Auckland via Los Angeles. We were released and allowed to enter normal society on November 23.

After celebrating Thanksgiving at Papamoa Beach in a sprawling suburban house with our family in the Tauranga area, my husband Gee Kin and I transferred to a cozy cottage in the Papamoa Hills. There is a view in the distance framed by the Bay of Plenty, Mt. Manganui and the South Pacific Ocean.

Our short walks up the road from the cottage revealed plenty of flora and fauna. Without much effort, we sauntered past sheep and cattle grazing in the rolling hills, a horse next door, and birds including tuis, pheasants, and hawks.

I picked a bouquet of wild hydrangeas and daisies along the roadside in the midst of tropical ferns hidden in an alien pine forest. The non-native species here are now shunned. A massive national campaign is underway to return the natural environment to native species.

By the end of the week we couldn’t wait to get back to the beach. We could roll out of car in the free parking lot in 15 minutes and immediately feel the sand between our toes. We walked an hour each way without seeing many people as the beach stretched miles before us.

Daughter Julianne, partner Jeff, and precious Baby Felix are having lunch on the balcony of their barn on the avocado and lemon farm where they are staying in Te Puke, kiwi fruit capital of the world.

Why are we in New Zealand?

Five million residents in New Zealand (of which 13% are Maori) are currently able to move about and conduct daily life normally as they have always prior to the advent of COVID-19 in March, 2020. Under the leadership of the prime minister, the New Zealand government tackled the pandemic early and “hard”. 

Around 70,000 New Zealand citizens who were living abroad have been repatriated. Qualified spouses or partners of New Zealand citizens, like me, are allowed to join members of their families. New Zealanders have had a tradition of taking a couple of years abroad to do an “OE” (overseas experience). Many who have been living in other countries are now returning for the first time.

In March, there was a complete lockdown throughout the country. The international borders were closed and all incoming travel was banned.  All businesses were closed (no takeout or delivery) and residents could not leave their homes except to buy groceries. This lasted for about a month.  Except for a few minor breaches, the country has managed to contain any major outbreaks. Services and facilities were gradually opened by levels in a rational, consistent fashion with minimal reversals.

Around 6,000 hotel spaces are provided throughout the country to monitor and test returnees before they are released after 14 days with no symptoms. Travelers cannot come to New Zealand without a voucher for managed isolation facility. Over the upcoming holiday period, spaces are booked out. Airlines do not allow passengers to fly to NZ without a valid voucher for quarantine. Other island countries such as Taiwan, Korea and Japan have implemented similar policies for quarantine.

During the 14-day isolation period, travelers are given two nasal tests. The Ministry of Health calls daily to check in and take temperatures. The only times isolees are allowed to leave their rooms is for pre-booked 40-minute exercises in a confined outdoor area, where those exercising are escorted and monitored by Defense personnel.

New Zealand has always been extremely protective of its land and environment and prevents external hazards or pestilence to enter the country. COVID-19 policies are an extension of existing policies. Because New Zealand relies heavily on its tourism industry, it is also important to preserve its crown jewels for the future.

While only a tiny country by international standards, New Zealand has focused on what it can do in a responsible manner to protect its people. In close collaboration with the Ministries of Immigration and Quarantine, Health, and Defense, the government has maintained an explicit program to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

And to complete the punchline for being here: it was a serendipitous adventure by Gee Kin’s father, who arrived in New Zealand in 1906 at the age of 19 from China to discover, like all immigrants, his fame and fortune. He stayed and left a legacy for his descendants from which we now benefit.

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!

image

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.

image

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.