Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Bloggo Indeterminato: Between Travels

I should be in Bath right now, along with the others from ICLC, but I opted out of that excursion. It's a great trip, with stops in Avebury, Glastonbury, Wells, and after Bath, Stonhenge, but I've made the trip twice already (once last fall, and once in fall 2005), and I'm just as glad that I'm not along with them. But I'm somewhat perplexed and more than a little frustrated. Not bewitched, but surely bothered and bewildered.

I DID have two good long walks Friday and Saturday, Friday's to a part of the walk along the north bank of the Thames, part if which I'd not yet covered, Saturday's simply a brisk walk around a good portion of Hyde Park, then heading back to South Kensington, stopping at a nearby Saturday market on Bute Street. 

You KNOW when you are entering the City of London
taken alongside the Thames
In fact I think I'll put a few photos up from those walks, such as the one just above, that will have nothing to do with the following narrative written in the confessional mode, but which will probably be more interesting to whomever decides to read this than the narrative itself.

Now that I have actually turned 65 (who'd-a thunk it?!), and am really in my last semester of teaching (boggles the mind!), I realize how very very close I am to retirement. 
Memorial to W.S. Gilbert
along the Thames
Of course I've known it was coming, have been excited for it to come, thought about it to a point last semester, but now it's like I've run up against a wall. Matters regarding retirement are preoccupying me to the point where I don't seem able to enjoy London as much as I should. Instead of planning trips, living in the moment, making the most of my time, I worry about which apartment I'll end up in back in the States, in Greenville SC to be specific, about furnishing that apartment, about social security, medicare, making ends meet -- making a new life.

Someone, I don't remember who, wrote me recently and noted that "transitions are hard." Whoever it was, s/he was right. I've been in transition most of my life, learned to cope with change when I was a wee one, being uprooted nearly every year as we traveled from air force base to air force base, I've covered this ground in earlier posts, but this particular change seems the most daunting of all. 

And yet at the same time it's potentially the most exciting of all. 
I ate my lunch on a bench with this in sight:
the Globe and the Millenium Bridge
I have a good twenty years yet (here's hoping, and for even more than that) and the world may very well open itself up to me and, as the saying goes, be my oyster. After all, during my few months on this side of the Atlantic I've visited Bratislava, somewhat near the home of my mother's side of the family, and I've been friended by Andrijana Hrkać, in Croatia, who I now know is related to me on my father's side of the family! A time of discovery, yes? Of course.

But still I get bogged down. It's one of my great frustrations about myself. 
A look down the Thames
from an unusual angle for me

I'm sure everyone has their own peeves about their own lives. My life would be just about perfect (except for the fiscal side, which barring a miracle will never improve) if only I could shake this tendency towards becoming mired in concerns that seem mighty whilst in the mire, but that once out of the mire, seem petty and inconsquential. True confessions, Dottore Gianni style!

I'll end this on an upbeat note. Whereas I have had to curtail my travel somewhat this semester, still, I've already been to Bruges. 
An obelisk along the Thames
from ancient Alexandri

And thanks to official ICLC trips, many students and I are heading to Edinburgh in just under three weeks, the first time since my very first visit in autumn 1999 that I'll have seen the city NOT during the festival; then a month later, in mid-March I am traveling to Paris with students for my French Revolution walk etc; and the weekend after that I'm off, again with students, to Stratford-Upon-Avon, one of my favorite towns in the U.K.! Granted, I will not be able to travel to Croatia, but that is because before I knew about that connection I had already booked a spring break trip to Italy. 

For God's sake man, what's wrong with this scenario?

A few brief words about my walk along the Thames on Friday. 
Ragazzi scavenging along the Thames
I have now covered a good portion of the Thames along both its banks, a good bit of which I'd seen before, but some of which I'd not yet encountered. I am not finished with this walk, yet, in fact I'll soon be back on the South Bank, but farther south than I've ever walked along it. That will be an adventure. And on my Thames walks I've discovered odds and ends that will probably never appear in usual touristic photos of London, but which for some reason or another give me a bit of a kick. If you've walked along the north bank, you know that after a point you run into dead ends. One restaurant has been very clever about exactly where they are, through the use of two signs:

I for one find these rather funny! 

And now, just a few more comments, about my walks in Hyde Park.  One of my very favorite experiences in the theatre
The Italian Gardens, Hyde Park,
not much now, but spring's on its way
was performing in an adaptation of a Noel Coward short story called "Ashes of Roses." In it he wrote, "There is much to recommend Hyde Park on a Sunday afternoon, particularly in the spring, when the grass is newly green, and there is a feeling of lightness in the air."  It's not spring quite yet, but I have so enjoyed being near enought in the vicinity of this beautiful park to enjoy walks there whenever the feeling hits me. And yesterday, a Saturday morning, not a Sunday afternoon, I had a chilly brisk walk through a good portion of it, about an hour's worth -- and believe me, even a very brisk walk taking that amount of time does not cover all the park, not even one turn around it. Another reason to look forward to the few remaining months I have left in London is to continue my walks there, "particularly in the spring..."

 At the end of my Hyde Park walk I stopped, as noted in the very beginning of this post, at the Bute Street market. I've written about this place and the market before.
The Institut Français in South Kensington
It's a very "Francophile" block, with boulangeries and French groceries along it, primarily because it is very near the Institut Francais. I almost feel as if at one turning of a corner I've stepped out of London and into Paris every time I stroll through it. A tale of two cities, rolled into one! Yesterday I stopped and bought a half chicken with stuffing and gravy, elegantly prepared, for £7. Pricey, but I made two meals of it, one last night focusing on the leg and thigh quarter, and later today very much looking forward to the breast, both meals with generous dollops of dressing, all covered with the delicious gravy. They also do beef, and it is very likely that next Saturday I will take a small pot of that back with me to 35 Harrington Gardens.

I began this post in a brooding, confessional style, but seem to have written myself out of it. In fact I just remembered London is celebrating Chinese New Year today, and I should get over to Soho, where the festive crowds will be. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Brugge Blogge day 3 and last

My last full day in Brugge saw the worst weather of the entire trip. the temperature was actually a bit higher than on days one and two, but the rain was no longer light, and it was steady. Still, I was determined to see a few things I'd did not want to miss, only one of which was indoors. 

The Church of Our Lady
The indoors must-see was also the closest to the hotel, so out I trudged to the Church of Our Lady. The spire of this church is the tallest in the city, and if you can believe Wikipedia, the second tallest tower made from bricks in the world. Along with the very different-looking spire of San Salvator and the gigantic tower of Belfort is a very good navigation guide for travelers with a less than sure sense of direction, as it can be seen easily from many different directions. Indeed I'd been spotting this spire throughout my stay in Brugge, and now welcomed the chance to see the inside. And the three-Euro fee (reduced for over-65s, which I now am) was more than worth it, as the Church of Our Lady is a treasure trove. Beautiful sculptures, often from wood, paintings by Flemish masters but also one by Carravaggio, lovely little side chapels two of which were set aside for prayer. 

Madonna and Child
But most beautiful of all is one of the only works by Michelangelo to be seen outside of Italy and the only one to have left Italy during the artist's lifetime, a superb Madonna and Child completed shortly after Michelangelo had completed his Pietà. Unlike the Pietà, which was placed behind bullet-proof glass after it was attacked with a hammer by a mentally unbalanced man in 1972, this Madonna and Child sits in full view, the centerpiece of a side altar. The area is roped off for safety, but to be able to get within ten feet of this masterpiece is thrilling, or me at least. 

Madonna and Child up close
I am a theatre historian, not an art historian, but I remember an art history expert discussing madonna and child paintings and sculptures. He noted that neither of the faces are usually depicted as being happy, but rather that both are already staring directly ahead in time to the crucifixion. Certainly that seems true of this sculpture, particularly in the face of Mary, who is shown gazing into the distance in a somber, almost mournful manner. However one interprets the theme of madonna and child, seeing this one was for me at the same time beautiful and disturbing, and I can't help but think that that's what Michelangelo was working toward. It is probably now my favorite, or perhaps second favorite, religious sculpture in any church I've been in. There is no question that the Pietà is an absolute stunner, but two things -- the bulletproof glass and also the crowds constantly surrounding it, make it difficult to get close to, figuratively as well as literally. Whereas on this cold, rainy Friday morning in Brugge, I was one of the only people in the church, and had the sculpture very much to myself for as long as I wanted a look. Lucky!

Then I plunged back into the elements in search of the area called Minnewater and next to it Begijnhof. After misjudging the distance twice and thus walking much fatther than I needed to, I finally found what I was looking for. 

Minnewater is a widening in the canal, with swans sailing up and down it, lovely houses on its banks. Of course it would show better in spring, but it was still a lovely, quiet area, one of the more idyllic places in at town filled with them. I will admit that by this point I was quite wet, the lower portion of my pants soaked, and one of my shoes as well -- why one and not the other? Good question! They don't make them like they used to! Trying to take a photo with my umbrella up was proving a challenge, but still I did not give up. 

A bridge over Minnewater takes one into the fascinating private area called Begijnhof, in English Beguinage. 
This unique spot, even more tranquil than its surroundings, was founded in the thirteenth century. Apparently in the Medieval era beguinages sprung up in several parts of Europe. There were several in Belgium alone. They were places populated by women, some widows and spinsters with little or no money, some from wealthy and noble families who wanted to live a life out of the ordinary, a contemplative, religious life, but not as formal and strict a life as nuns in recognized orders. In fact there was some distrust of these beguinages by the Church, but they were protected in Belgium, thus the large number in that country.

I had satisfied all but one of my touring desires, and the last I decided to leave for another visit. In the northeast of the city there are four windmills left from more than 20. While at least one is able to be visited, it is not open in January, but I wanted to have a look. However, I was in the south of the city, and soaked, so I opted for a cozy cafe instead. I returned to Petit Maxim's. I had broken my promise of a small breakfast by gorging myself, and so I was determined to have a bowl of soup only -- until I saw the special. It started with soup, but also included an omelette, and was topped off with chocolate mousse. I accompanied the first two courses with another Leffe, and savored the mousse, which in addition to the usual smooth texture of a mousse, featured small chunks of delicious Belgian chocolate!

Then I returned to the hotel and worked on blogs and photos and whatnot until it was time for supper. Did I eat lightly? Mais non! 

I had been eyeing a place called Mozarthujs each of the two days before, but made different selections. I wanted a piece of fish, and Mozarthujs is situated very close to the Vismarkt, so I went for a dinner of cod and baked potatoes, washed down with a glass of chardonnay. The wine was ok, but the fish was very fresh indeed. But this was my very last meal in Brugge and I had not yet sampled a Belgian waffle in Belgium. So! I had one with ridiculously fresh strawberries and really fine vanilla ice cream. The perfect culinary end to an almost perfect visit to this lovely city. The weather had not cooperated, but just about everything else in Brugge definitely had.

Belgian waffle, anyone?
One note before I toss this post out into the blogosphere. The taxi driver who took me to the train station on Saturday morning was one of the friendliest I've ever encountered. He was chatty, inquisitive, very solicitous. This is not usually the case with drivers of taxis, in fact I'm used in New York for example to sullen silence, or more often to cabbies who speak no English. I did have one fun ride in Manhattan with a Russian driver, who got a kick out of my attempts to speak the few words I remember. But other than my driver in Brugge I've had a few similar experiences in Edinburgh, and one recently in Bratislava, and that's about all. This man may have been the very best of the lot. At the station I thanked him for the ride and the good chat, and he responded, "Thank you for riding in my taxi!"  Lovely!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Brugge: Day 2

After the excellent breakfast I wrote briefly about in my first post on Brugge, it didn't take me long on day two to discover that a light but steady rain was falling. So I decided that this would a good morning to check out the museums. Once again the position of my hotel was excellent for this. Turning right out of the hotel and making an almost immediate left, I walked down that road for maybe five to seven minutes when I spotted several museums that I had read about.
Entrance to the Groeninge Museum

One quick note on size: While there are areas out of the center that Dottore Gianni  wants to see, such as Minnewater and the Begujnhof to the south, and the windmills to the north, most of the city is available to less eager walkers with great ease. Dottore Gianni always researches well before he tours cities he's not seen before, but even he was surprised by how close together most of the sites are as he moved from one point of interest to the next.

And one quick caveat: Tourists beware! Or at least be Aware of the cobblestones, which are almost everywhere, charming to see but sometimes tricky to traverse. Bicyclists in Brugge seem not to mind this, but it would seem to me that any ride is accompanied by a constant series of very light bumps. Dottore Gianni is more walker than cyclist, but walkers too must take care not to trip on the stones, The good doctor has trod many cobbled streets in Europe, and even he managed to get tripped up several times. After long periods trodding these stones a toll can be taken on one's feet as well.
Colorful buildings on the Markt Square
So! I knew that I wanted to see three museums in particular: the Hans Memling museum, the Groeninge Museum for its Flemish "primitives" such as Memling in Sint-Jan, Jan van Eyck and others (though their work is anything but primitive), and the Gruuthuse Museum, primarily for its guillotine! I ended up seeing four, and spent a very pleasant morning doing so. 
Entrance to the Memling Museum
I started with the Memling, housed in St John's Jospital (thus Sint-Jan) for which he painted several works. The setting is excellent, and while there are only a few of Memling's own works they are worth their weight and probably then some in gold. But there is also a history of the hospital in paintings, sculptures and artifacts as well. If you don't know Memling's work you should, but if you have friends and/or family that sends religious Christmas cards you'll have seen his work, as angels, madonnas and child paintings are trimmed to work well for season's greetings. 

I next headed off in search of the small but famed art museum that houses more Memlings, along with Van Eycks, Van der Goes etc, the Groeninge Museum. But I walked into the wrong museum! One can be forgiven for this, and Dottore Gianni should be forgiven anything, as there are quite a few museums in the area. The good news is that this museum, the Arentshuis, not only houses an excellent exhibition on Frank Brangwyn, a British painter born in Bruges who was a member of the Munich Secession movement and who founded the Vienna Secession movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I hadn't known his work, and I was lucky to stumble upon it. Even more luckily, when I paid for this museum I was told that I'd also get to see the Groeninge on the same ticket. Most luckily, I visited on the day after my 65th birthday and got a reduced price! So you see there IS something good about turning 65 after all!

Just after I viewed the lovely surprise at Arentshuis I walked the very few steps to the Groeninge. After the dazzling first three rooms, in that museum, featuring work from all of the above and more, including a great Hieronymous Bosch painting of the Last Judgement -- a surrealist centuries before that 20th century avant-garde movement was born -- I must admit to disappointment, as several rooms were closed off because a special exhibit just closed was being removed. The only other room I really wanted to see was, speaking of surrealists, the surrealist room, which houses work by Rene Magritte among others. But not for me, not today. Ah well, you can't have it all, right?

And it was on to an interesting if eclectic museum composed of odds an ends from the history of Brugge, the Gruuthaus. I found a good bit of the collection fairly uninteresting, but I wanted to see this one because among the miscellany is a guillotine! 

La Guillotine!
Not that I'm all that interested in bloody instruments of death, but the course that I am teaching at ICLC is on performing arts and the French Revolution. So it was fascinating to see one of these up close. This particular guillotine was purchased in 1796, only a short time after the Reign of Terror had ended, and its first use in Brugge was in October of that same year, to put a murdere to death, It remained in use until the late 19th century -- the last use in France was in the early 20th century, as not every schoolboy knows.  It was smaller than I'd imagined a guillotine would be, particularly when you look at drawings of guillotines in the Place de la Concorde during the height of the Revolution -- of course the "place" was not one of "concorde" in the Reign of Terror, and in fact was re-named from the Place Louis XV, for whom it was originally constructed, to the Place de la Revolution during the Revolution, and quickly re-named the Place de la Concorde after the blood-bath was finished.

I had planned on three museums, got four for the same reasonable price, even got a compliment from the woman who sold me the two=for-pne card. She told me I did not look 65 at all. Flattering!

After all that museum-hopping I decided to relaz at a place called Petit Maxim's, 
recommended by the lovely receptionist at the hotel, I dould not refuse, and enjoyed a tall glass of Leffe, another Belgian beer that more of you may have heard of, as I think I've seen the export version in the U.S.  Liked it nearly as much as Brugse Zot! Then back to the hotel for the afternoon, to finish writing day one of my blog, and also to have a nap. I had walked a good bit, including what I call "museum amble," not as good for you as a walking briskly, and I was pooped!
At about 4 pm I noticed a phenomen: the sun had come out! Well, in and out, but it was enough to get me back outside for a walk around some of the same places I'd seen on the first day, and to discover a few more. It was already almost sundown, so the brightness had gone out of the sky, but it was a mostly blue sky, and that was a  pleasant change from the day before and earlier in the same day.
The Provincial Court in Market Square
note the blue sky
I walked for about two hours in all, making several discoveries, including, once again by accident, the city's main theatre, the Stadsschouwburg. It's a gigantic building, and I came upon it from the rear, only realizing what I found as I started seeing bills for different plays, operas, touring companies along its side. I know I'm about to retire but a theatre historian always delights when he comes across as theatre he's not yet seen. At least this one does.
The Stadsschouwburg
Then I began to think about supper. Confession: I find it very difficult to decide on where I want to eat, and wandered back and forth among restaurants I'd already considered until I drove myself nearly mad. 

The building dates
from 1699
So I walked into a neighborhood nearby I'd seen only once, very close to the Burg, and stopped in at a bar famous for its own beer, and also for having over 400 different kinds of beer on offer! It's called Cambrinus, for a man who is called the King of Beer -- "long before Bud," quips the historical note in the gigantic menu (lots of food of course, but it takes many pages to list and describe and note the alcohol content of 400 beers), and who is thought to have invented the drink -- fact or fiction? Who cares? It's a great place, determinedly touristy, yet with a lot of locals too, one boisterous group playing cards energetically and boisterously. 

With so many beers to choose from I decided on the house brew: Cambrinus! It comes in light and dark, and I had a glass of both, one before the main course, one with it, and both are delicious, though I favored the light version of this brew, found the dark not so interesting, and not nearly as interesting as the Brugse Zot.  I did well with the beer, but decided on what turned out to be wretched excess as well as repetitive with the food, I thought I'd try one of the other tres Belgian recipes -- the rabbit stew, or the fish stew -- instead I saw a three-course meal on offer, called the choice of the brewers: to start, Trappist Cheese Croquettes -- wonderful (though my cholesterol pills would not agree) but a meal in themselves. The main course: Carbonnade Flamande again. I'm glad I did in a way, as this was even tastier than the one I'd had the night before, and it came with what I thought was an odd choice at first, apple sauce -- hot apple sauce with chunks of apples as well as sauce in it -- which turned out to be a great accompaniment. But of course it also came with Belgian fries! I was pretty much done for by this point, not to mention tipsy, and then the dessert came -- a creme brulee, but not just any creme brulee. This one was flavored slightly with Gambrinus beer, and had an assortment of fruit atop it -- heaven!

Brugge at night, snapped by a tipsy Jack
But I had stuffed myself to the point of unpleasantness. I wobbled home, vowing that I would eat a light breakfast the next morning (today), however I broke my vow. To find out more, read the nest post!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bloggo Trenticinquesime: Brugge, or Bruges - Birthday Trip

Dottore Gianni usually has a fairly decent idea of how to begin a travel post, but he must admit that he has no smooth start for this one. Perhaps a "just the facts" approach is best, and who knows? It may lead to inspiration as well.

Traveling to Brugge is fairly easy, and if you book ahead fairly economical. I chose the Eurostar (sometimes known as the chunnel) train from London's spanking new St Pancras Station. I booked about a month ahead of time and got a 70£ return (or round trip) to any destination in Belgium. The Eurostar goes to and stops at Brussels, but at that large station transfers can be made to almost anywhere in Europe, not just other Belgian cities. I arrived at about 10 past noon (a bit over 2 hours from London) and thanks to careful scanning of the departures charts found a train leaving for Brugge and beyond at 12:26. I was "In Bruges" (apologies to M. McDonagh) an hour later, and thanks to a taxi waiting at the station at my hotel. the excellent Jan Brito, in a ten minutes. 

Sidebar: Belgians call the city Brugge, but its French name is Bruges -- easily confused with another Bruges, actually IN France. I'm going with the Belgians primarily, in this blog at least.

The Jan Brito Hotel gets rave reviews and it's easy to see why. 
Jan Brito Hotel
I booked what I think must be the least expensive room in it. 255 Euros (all I could afford) for three nights. My room is tiny (called the Maid's room -- and as far as I can tell everybody ought to have one -- figure out what I mean by "one" - to what or whom does it refer?) The is situated in an elegant town home that dates from the 16th century. much restored in the 18th, with a beautiful garden court which my room looks out upon. I am back from breakfast on my first full day here as I write this, and that meal was correctly called "sumptuous" by the management. The hotel is quiet and peaceful and yet in the midst of the bustling center of Brugge, only a few minutes from the Vismarkt (fishmarket) and the bevy of restaurants on the canal near it. 

It takes only moments more to reach the two main squares in Brugge, the Markt and the Burg. These are breathtaking, the first for the massive Belfort which dominates it and the city skyline in general. 
Belfort was built in the 13th century from brick. Its carillon chimes every 15 minutes and apparently there are also occasional concerts of carillon music. It housed cloth markets in the past. Also on the Markt is the Provinciaal Hof which houses the government of West Flanders. These two, along with several other brilliantly colored buildings that have now been turned into overpriced restaurants, make the area unique in Europe, at least of the cities I've seen. I next intended to make a beeline for the Burg, but got side-tracked at a small establishment just off the Markt that specialized in Belgian (move over, French!) fries, fried twice to give them their unique flavor. There are over 20 possible sauces to put atop these fries. No malt vinegar need apply, though there is a concession to ketchup, for Americans that could not imagine their fries any other way.. I chose a simple sauce -- mayonnaise -- very different from that in the U.S. Delicious, as promised. 

Having fed myself I gained a burst of energy, and I needed it in the weather, which was, sad to say, pretty miserable -- light rain, not so light wind and frigid. But still I wandered, first down a major shopping street to the church of San Salvatore, which features another gigantic tower, then finally found my way to the Burg, a sight stunning to see in any weather. 
The Burg
If the Markt overwhelms with sheer size, the Burg does with elegance. The centerpiece is the Gothic Stadhuis (City Hall) which still houses civic functions. The Heilig Bloed Basiliek or Basilica of the Holy Blood is another beauty, and a small Renaissance gem sits just to the left of the Stadhuis in the picture to the left. There are other amazing places to see in Brugge, but if you're on a day trip these two are a must -- just don't eat or drink on the Markt. The receptionist at my hotel told me that a beer can go for as high as 13 Euros there, so let the buyer beware. 

Speaking of beer, after rambling around for two hours in inclement weather, I finally got tired enough to find a bar to sit down in and to try my first Belgian beer -- I found an establishment just next to the Vismarkt and I chose a local brew,
 Brugse Zot, whose logo features a grinning jester. Perfect for me, as I've always thought that jesting should have been my first calling, if only it had paid! This beer comes light or dark -- I chose light for my snack -- and was instantly transported into beer heaven! The Belgians are said to make some of the finest beer in the world, and I was converted after the first taste. By the way, the Brugse Zot pictured on the right is the dark version, which I had that night at dinner. The bar where I had the light version was full of tough-looking, though not unfriendly locals. I was sure I'd lose any standing with them (precious little, I;m sure) if I'd started to photograph my glass!

Brugse Zot also packs an unexpected punch, so I sstaggered back to my hotel for a little R&R before I ventured back outdoors for dinner. In fact the place I chose fit one basic requirement: it had to be close to the hotel, as I was pretty tired. Fortunately very near the Vismarkt is a beautiful old square that houses four or five restaurants. Two of them have tables overlooking the canal, and you pay through the nose for that alone. Birthday or not I had to watch my budget, so I found a nice place called Vistro & Mosselkelder, which, as the name implies is located in a kelder or cellar and features vis (fish) and mossels (mussels). Mussels and Belgian Fries is one of the signature dishes in Brugges, however I was not in that mood, and tried a meat dish instead. Vlaamse Stoofkar-bonaden, aka Carbonnades Flamande is another Belgian staple. It's a thick, rich beef stew in which chunks of beef are slow-cooked for hours in Belgian beer, in this case the dark Brugse Zot pictured above. So what's the perfect drink to accompany it? Guess! It was served with a salad and more fries, and from the first bite I knew I had chosen wisely. I had fully intended to treat myself to dessert, which I almost never do these days, but I was so stuffed by the end of the meal and two large glasses of Brugse Zot that I could find no room for it within.
No particular reason for this photo, except that it gives
you an idea of the lovely canals of Brugge
In fact all I had strength for when I returned to the hotel at about 9 pm was processing the photos I'd taken yesterday. I then slept soundly. Good night. Stay tuned for Brugge  day two, coming at you soon!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dottore Gianni's Roots - To Search, or Not To Search

In The Marriage of Figaro, a play Dottore Gianni has no little fondness for (he loves the opera too), the title character discovers who his parents are in one very surprising and funny moment, Figaro has found his roots. Hurrah!

Like Figaro I too have long been in search of my roots, though unlike Figaro I was never convinced that I came from "quality," as I was fairly certain that instead I am the product of peasant stock, specifically peasants centered in the lands of the Czech Republic and Slovakia on my mother's side of the family, and in Croatia on my father's side.

In at least a few earlier posts, I have written of my own past (Air Force brat, constantly traveling during youth, difficulty in making friends), and my desire to discover where my family is from (asking both my grandfathers where they were born, only to hear them reply "You don't want to know!"), but at the same time not all that sure I'm ready for the reality -- the results of discovering my roots.

That's why Bratislava was a very pleasant experience with me. 
Bratislava's main square with Christmas market
I really felt at home there. You might remember my describing the nut rolls and poppy-seed rolls at the Christmas Market, and the wonderful flash-back to my grandmother's chicken noodle soup on my first sip of a very similar soup at a restaurant in Bratislava. But as those of you who read my posts on Bratislava, the picturesque old town in that city was a dream of home, a fantasy. I'm not sure I have words to express what "home" is to me.

In a very early post I wrote back in early August 2011 as I remember, that I described my youth I also noted that partly because of the constant travel, which meant having to set down new roots almost yearly, before being uprooted and moved on to yet another Air Force base, I have been a bit of a loner, always felt a bit like a stranger in a strange land, whether in Bratislava, where I stayed a mere two days, or in Ithaca NY, where I lived for 21 years. I think that if I did not like at least something about this hermit-like mode of living I would have tried to shake it off. Instead I DID shake off, as much as possible, and probably too much for some of my friends, a somewhat forced gregariousness that I did not know I was "performing" until it had completely exhausted me. Was it a good idea to swing away so far as I did from that "hail-fellow-well-met" method of living? Again, not sure, but what a relief it is to have moved away from it. 

Thinking about this somewhat peculiar life-style of mine doesn't preoccupy me, but I dwell on it a good bit when I do a lot of traveling, and of course I'm doing as much of that right now as my energy and bank account will afford. But what set this post in motion was my agreement to accept, just after I returned from Budapest, Bratislava and Prague, an offer of facebook friendship from a precocious twelve-year old Croatian boy named Jakov Hrkać.

Jakov Hrkać
How could I resist? My doppelgänger? Perhaps not that, as he is  just in his teens and I will be 65 in less than a week, but he was born on 16 January, only two days from my birthday -- so maybe in a spiritual sense? My other self? Exaggerated, probably wrong-headed, maybe even crazy notions, but the instant I saw the name these were the thoughts whirling in my head. And just after those thoughts the idea that I could now find my roots! I could travel to wherever he is in Croatia and find out about where my father's side of the family comes from, what kind of people they are and were. Roots! 

But almost as soon as I thought that I began looking at his facebook info. First the name Jakov translates to James Hrkach, not Jack, though by god it sounds like Jack, doesnt it? Then I looked at , where he was born: Široki Brijeg, and where he lives, Izbično (a village within Široki Brijeg, if I understand it correctly), not far from Mostar.

For me and for anyone who paid any attention to world news in the 1990s Mostar thrusts me back into that decde when a nightmarish war in the former ill-formed state of Yugoslavia was raging. I looked more closely at Yakov's posts, specifically at a thread between Jakov and one of my cousins, that I'd not have seen, if ever, since he was a baby. In answer to a question from cousin Richard, Jakov explains, "Yes, all Hrkać are from the same village, Izbično near Mostar and all are Croats and Catholics." 
Stary Most, in Mostar

It has been alleged that it was Croats who blew up the famed Stary Most (Old Bridge) in Mostar during the conflict. Built by command of the Ottoman emperor Suleiman in the mid 16th century, the beautiful bridge has been reconstructed, but I have to wonder what the reconstruction smong Muslims, Roman Catholic Croats and Greek Orthodox Serbians is like today.

Another Hrkać, with the intriguing name of Darko Hrkac Dara, also chimed in on the thread between Jakov and cousin Richard: "There are many Hrkać in Bosnia and Hercegovina. most of them are in Široki Brijeg,, but also in Croatia,, in city of Zagreb and all around...When you get in Hercegovina contact us and we will show you where are you from really...hehe."

I have not done more with my new Croatian friend than agree to be his facebook friend. I could write him, and perhaps I should. On one hand my instinct, a very strong instinct, tells me to go to Croatia over spring break. Mostar is inland from and between Split and Dubrovnik, both of which I wish to see, both of which have international airports, and I could probably get to Mostar by bus. But I am torn. After all these years of wanting to know my roots, another instinct tells me to hold back.

Is it because I fear that my new found distant relatives may not be the people I hope they are? That they were part of the ugly conflict in Bosnia in the 1990s -- how could they not have been, those that were old enough. 

Or is it, and I'm guessing it probably IS, because I'm not certain I actually want to be introduced to the reality of my roots, whatever they are?

Darko's words echo in my head: "When you get in Hercegovina contact us and we will show you where are you from really...hehe."

And instead of the reality, hold on to a hazy, dream-like version concocted in my own increasingly (seems to me) hermetically sealed universe, so that I can continue to live in the shadowy land that I have been creating for myself from the days of my youth. 

To search or not to search? Can't say.