Friday, November 22, 2013

Poets and Playwrights

We open in Venice,
We next play Verona,
Then on to Cremona.
Lotsa laughs in Cremona.
Our next jump is Parma,
That stingy, dingy menace,
Then Mantua, then Padua,
Then we open again, where?
We open in Venice,
We next play Verona. . .

Our last day of biking saw us heading from Lazise on Lake Garda to Verona. Harvey and Phyllis had been primed for this part of the trip even before we left New York and New Jersey. Harvey had loaded the song “We Open in Venice” from Kiss Me, Kate onto his iPhone, and began playing it at full volume in the courtyard of the hotel while we got ready to begin biking. The opening lyrics are printed above. But a warning: If you start singing the song, it will stay in your head forever.

Not all of us were beginning on bikes that day because of a different warning. The first part of our route was going to be mostly uphill, we were informed. Carlotta and Claudio didn’t even sugarcoat this by referring to “rolling hills.” We were going to be climbing for most of the first six kilometers. Audrey wisely joined a number of other tour members in choosing the van over the bike for those six kilometers. I foolishly decided to gut it out.

I found myself in the lowest gears on both wheels much too quickly. So I wasn’t making a lot of progress distance-wise or speed-wise. My psyche took an even bigger hit a few minutes later. In the midst of a climb, an elderly woman turned right in front of me from a side street. She was wearing a dress, raincoat, and street shoes and carrying a load of groceries in a basket on the front of her bike. She was even smoking a small cigar. Those proved to be no impediment for her. She quickly left me far behind. I was a little mortified. Probably sensing this, several of our group members later said they thought the woman’s bike had been motorized, and that’s why she left me in the dust. I think they were just trying to make me feel better.  Nevertheless, I’m choosing to believe that version. It’s what I told Audrey when we met up with the van at the six-kilometer mark.

The rest of our trip to Verona was pretty flat and really scenic. Then, we hit a snag. A bridge we were scheduled to cross had been washed out in recent rainstorms. Our guides had to improvise, and they planned a new route that took us mostly onto city streets once we reached Verona. We weaved our way through traffic and just ignored some of the blaring horns and threatening hand gestures that “encouraged” us to get out of the way. Our entrance had been a little nerve-wracking, but we were ready to “play Verona” for the next few hours. (I wish we could have spent days there.) One of the first sights we took in was the Arena, which is similar to but older than the Coliseum in Rome. In Roman times, gladiators had fought in the Arena; the night before we arrived, Cher had packed the house there. This probably deserves a witty comment, but I think I will pass.

We just missed seeing Cher at the Arena.

We ate lunch and wandered around the city on our own for a few hours before we were scheduled to have a guide meet us and give us the real tour. During our explorations, Audrey hoped to find the perfect Italian leather pocketbook, but time was short, and prices were too high. Oh well. . . .

From the beginning, we had referred to this bike trip in north-central Italy as “Our Shakespearean Tour.” After all, we began biking in Mantua and ended up in Verona. Both cities play prominent roles in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and both cities use that play prominently in their marketing to tourists. It is next to impossible for visitors to Verona to pass up a chance to stand beneath Juliet’s balcony and be thrown into a romantic trance, and why should they? Even if Juliet was just a fictional character and her story was based only loosely on a real feud in Renaissance-era Verona, she comes alive in Verona, and she sparks “lovely (and loving) thoughts” in all of us. When our tour guide led us to the purported Capulet courtyard overlooked by that famous balcony, she urged us to “rub the boobies” of a statue of Juliet there, so we would have good luck in romance. It had worked for her, she noted. After rubbing the boobies, she had been able to win the affections of her new boyfriend, a 35-year-old male she was convincing to finally leave his parents’ home. “You know Italian men are never able to leave their mothers until they get married,” she joked. But the power of Juliet was helping her win him over. Somehow I resisted the urge to “rub the boobies,” but we have a photo of Harvey doing the deed. He is clearly more romantic than I.

A modern-day Juliet stands in the balcony.

This man is preparing to "rub the boobies."
Then, moments after we left Juliet’s courtyard, I spotted a sign on a doorpost in downtown Verona that identified the headquarters of the Accademia Mondiale della Poesi, the World Academy of Poetry. The sign made me realize that our tour had really been more about poetry than Shakespeare. We had covered only a small portion of Italy on our trip, but there was poetry and poets everywhere we went.

How great would it be to work for the World Academy of Poetry! 
We had spent our first two nights in the tiny town of Portovenere, perched on the Gulf of Poets. Byron had swum in those waters, and Shelley had written many of his poems while living in the area and had died tragically nearby when a boat he was aboard sank during a storm. In later days, we also rode past the birthplace of Virgil in Mantua and viewed the house where Dante lived in Verona. And now I had spotted the World Academy of Poetry, which, of course, makes me think of a story from my past. Bear with me. . . .

A grotto on the Gulf of Poets where Byron swam.

When I was in high school, I was both precocious and pretentious (no surprise). I also decided that I was a poet. I wrote a lot of poems, and, looking back with a more critical eye, most of them were not very good. I even joined the Poetry Society of Georgia, which was based in Savannah. A friend’s mother, Anita Raskin, convinced me to join. Like many of the members, she was a librarian and teacher; like very few of the members, I was a kid. I would attend meetings and even submit some of my poems for competitions. One made it into the organization’s 50th anniversary anthology. I don’t think anything literary I have accomplished has made me prouder. I found that anthology when we were cleaning out my mother’s house last year and reread the poem. No Byron or Dante, but a pretty good Goodman.

But back to Verona and poetry. I went looking for a good Dante quote about love, but Dante tends to be a little depressing even on that subject. Virgil, on the other hand, has something good to impart:

Omnia vincit Amor; et nos cedamus Amori. (Love conquers all, and we must yield to Love.)

 I think that’s what our tour guide in Verona was trying to tell us, too.

Audrey, Phyllis, and I (but not Harvey) joined six other tour members in deciding to take the van back to Lazise rather than brave the bike paths again, even if those last six kilometers would be mostly downhill. Our hearts were filled with love, but our knees and butts were filled with pain. Our riding days in Italy were over—at least for this year.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Dangers of Biking

When last I wrote about our Italian biking adventure, I was huffing and puffing up a hill to arrive at the tiny town of Castellaro Lagusello. The next day featured a whole new set of challenges and dangers, some of which had very little to do with biking.

The day began with our guide Claudio’s crushing an attempted revolution that Audrey had begun. Audrey had asked the day before whether it wouldn’t be more convenient for all of us to gather for our pre-biking Italian lesson, direction discussion, and pep talk at 9:00 rather than 8:30. She wanted a little more sleep and a less hurried breakfast. Claudio agreed to compromise, sort of. With a twinkle in his eye, he said we could start the next morning’s meeting at 8:31! And that was indeed the time that he and Carlotta began giving us our marching (er– riding) orders the next day. We learned that the biking company had mapped out either an easy or moderate route for the beginning of our ride, but that they favored the “moderately difficult” path because it seemed easier to them than the “easy” one. Huh? I was sure that either one would tax my pedaling and gear-shifting skills, not to mention my psyche. Oh well. . . .

Danger 1 Ahead
As you can probably guess, “moderately difficult” is another way of saying "hilly." Slow, annoying ups and all-too-brief, enjoyable downs. That’s what I was expecting. What I didn’t anticipate was a series of loud gunshots that filled the air as we began climbing a long hilly section through a vast area of wooded and grassy fields. Who was shooting at us? And why?

We learned that hunting season had opened that morning. Several shotgun carrying hunters were walking through the fields looking for and firing at game—rabbits or various kinds of birds. We hoped that American bikers weren’t on their target list, too. Would I be able to duck at the same time I was trying to climb a hill, I wondered? I didn’t want to find out the answer. Luckily, we got through the fields region safely. And I didn’t have as much trouble biking as I had anticipated, in part because one of the other bikers showed me how to shift gears on the left side of the bike to ease the chain on my front wheels. Now I could give new meaning to the term “slow and steady.”

We proceeded on to the charming town of Desenzano on Lake Garda. We had a lovely lunch there—pizza, pasta, and salad, of course—and took some pictures of local ducks who were wisely avoiding leaving the lake confines during hunting season.
Ducks in Desenzano happily hide out from hunters.
 Danger 2 In the Air
As we proceeded out of town for the return trip to our hotel in Castellaro, we were bombarded by hoards of marauding gnats. I thought that I was being especially singled out by the beasts because I was wearing a bright yellow biking shirt. They must have thought I was a large, chubby light bulb, and they were attracted to it. (When we stopped later, everyone was impressed by how many dead bugs were attached to my shirt. Clearly, I was not only a light bulb but a bright yellow windshield too.) When we finally escaped the bugs, it was almost time to enter the hilly region again, this time from the other direction. And if that wasn’t enough, there was still one more danger to survive.

Gnats, Beware! This yellow shirt may be deadly!
Danger 3 On the Ground
This part of Italy is in the Po River Valley and is called Valpolicella, which is also the name of a noted wine produced in the region. Where they make wine, they usually grow grapes, right? And we passed many vineyards loaded down with fruit almost ready for picking and crushing. (I have this thing for orchards and now for vineyards, too. I am amazed by the almost mathematical precision of the placement of the trees or vines. How do the farmers judge the distances so precisely when they plant the seeds or seedlings? Very impressive!)

The grapes looked so beautiful and enticing that several of us decided to stop our bikes along the path and test out the goods. As I reached toward a vine, someone in our group sounded a warning that an interested and possibly angry farmer was watching us closely. I promise that I took only two grapes and quickly remounted my steed. They were delicious, by the way.
Grapevines in Valpolicella line up majestically and proudly show off their bounty.
The rest of the trip home was uneventful, thank goodness. And I looked forward to dinner at a nearby winery, which was surpringly established at the same location as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. This could happen only in Italy. . . .

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Dai! Dai! . . . Die! Die!

"This suffering will yield us yet/A pleasant tale to tell.”

—Virgil, Eclogues

On our third day of biking in Italy, we traveled from Mantova, a charming ancient town on the River Mincio, to Castellaro Lagusello, a small village that features a beautiful medieval castle bordering a heart-shaped lake.

If you had read that sentence in a tour guidebook, you would probably think only lovely thoughts, right? And you would mostly be correct. Mostly.

We started out the morning as usual with an Italian lesson. This one featured what to say when you pass other bikers along a path or road. You might call out a simple, “ciao,” a cheerful “buongiorno,” or a more formal “salve.” If you want to urge a person in front of you to move faster, you could call out, “Dai! Dai!” You say this for encouragement, we were told, not in hopes the person might “die, die” and get out of your way. Ah-ha, I can see an omen coming from a mile away!

As fit the pattern for those first three days, we began biking in the rain. Not a downpour, but just enough to be annoying. Still, the countryside was beautiful, the pathways were generally flat with only a few up rises, and the trees and vines were heavy with fruit. We even passed a stone on the roadside that was purported to have been a favorite writing spot for the Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro, better known as Virgil. What more could an English major want!

Our biking group fell into its usual start-off pattern. There were 19 of us, plus one guide leading on bike and another guide following in van. While each of us bikers was unique, I felt that our riding style was influenced in part by geography. Rushing to the front of the pack were Kathy and Kevin from New Jersey, who were probably the fittest of us (and the youngest). Right behind them were our longtime friends Phyllis and Harvey from Westchester County in New York, very fit and very competitive. Then came Audrey and me, also from New Jersey, Howard and Laura from Syosset, New York, and Weld and Ellen from near Boston. People from the Northeast have what my grandmother used to call in Yiddish “shpilkes,” which she would loosely translate as “ants in their pants.” They’re impatient.

Near the middle of the group were Sandy and Fred from Maine, Excellent bikers who were a little older and more patient and very resilient. Remember, they’re from Maine! Then Susan and Chuck from Michigan in the calm Midwest, though Chuck would sometimes get impatient and shoot to the front. He had amazingly strong legs and sometimes felt the need to go out running during times that we weren’t riding.
 Starting out near the rear almost always were our five Minnesota riders—Lou and Burle, Michele and Carroll, and Dorothy. They talked slower than the rest of us, knew more about agriculture in Italy and the rest of the world than the rest of us, and never seemed phased by rain, hills, or bugs. Like the proverbial tortoise, they were steady and persistent. They might start out near the back but usually ended up near the front. I, on the other hand, usually started out around 4th in line and ended up 14th or 15th. Oh well. . . .
The Minnesota Five (L to R): Michele, Carroll, Dorothy, Lou, and Burle
Our route that day was taking us to the towns of Borghetto, Monzambano, and Castellaro Lagustello. These were all included, we were told, on the list of the 100 most beautiful towns in Italy. (I have the feeling that every town in north-central Italy is on that list or deserves to be.) We pedaled for more than 25 miles before stopping for lunch at a restaurant that resembled an Austrian hofbrau. This area in Italy is very popular with Austrians who live within shouting distance. After lunch, the rain started to pick up again, so Audrey decided to ride the van to our hotel destination in Castellaro. As a result, she missed the “dai, dai” fun.

The road from the hofbrau started out fairly flat as we pedaled along a river bank. Then we started to climb a little bit. That was the first real climbing we had had to do so far on this tour that was rated as “easy.” Our riding directions also got a little more complicated. We were instructed not only when to turn but also when not to turn. We had been warned earlier that morning that while we needed to find a road called Sant Pietro, that almost all roads in the area were called Sant Pietro. You just had to determine the right one. Luckily, Kathy, Kevin, and Harvey took the lead, with Weld close behind. They were our best milestone spotters. Somehow, those six pages of complex directions we were given each day never phased them. They would cheerfully call out, “We’re at kilometer 34.5,” or something similar, to help keep the rest of us on track. I tried to keep up, and trusted that the map readers would get us to our destinations safely.

At last, we reached the final three kilometers of our daily directions. Less than two miles left, and I was feeling pretty confident. After all I had read the description of our Day 3 journey online. Here is what the tour company had written: “Our last stretch is over gently rolling hills that approach the Natural Reserve of Castellaro and its heart-shaped lake.” I should have known a euphemism when I spotted one.

(Many years ago, my cousin David and I were going to a convention together in a small town in northern Georgia. When we got off the train, we asked someone in the station how far it was to our destination. “Oh, a couple of country blocks,” we were told. We decided we could certainly walk a couple of country blocks. Luckily, after we had trudged about one-and-a-half miles with our suitcases, a kind local stopped and offered us a ride. Later, I asked my father, a country boy from Arkansas, how long a country block was, and he told me “a little over a mile.”)

So you’d think that I would have learned my lesson, and when I read about “gently rolling hills,” I would have had my suspicions. Nope. I just blithely pedaled until I decided to look up and noticed that the road was looking steeper and steeper. I downshifted on the right, moving from seventh gear to second and then to first. (I didn’t really know how to shift on the left side to make my front wheels easier to push. I would learn that trick the next day.) The pedals were easy enough to maneuver, but I was climbing at about 10 feet a minute and breathing harder and harder. If there had been ducks walking up the path with me, they would have easily passed me by. I wasn’t sure I could make it. I contemplated taking the cowardly route, climbing off the bike and walking up the hill. No one on our tour had done such a thing. Could I shame myself in that way?

Then Howard, my new friend from Syosset, slowed down and assumed a spot just to my left about three feet behind me. He shouted, “Dai! Dai!” while I was thinking “Die! Die!” “You can do it, just a little farther.” He kept up the encouragement, and I kept pumping. Then, miraculously, the road evened out, and we saw our hotel only 50 feet ahead. “Gently rolling hills,” my ass, but I had made it, largely thanks to Howard’s insistence.
Howard and Laura: Howard's "Dai! Dai! " saved me, saved me!
Of course, when we entered the hotel courtyard, Audrey was lying on a lounge reading a book. “Oh good, you’re here,” she said in greeting. “Now you can carry our suitcases up the steep staircase inside the room. They’re too heavy for me.” The words "Dai! Dai!" (or their sound-alikes) came into my mind, but, luckily, I didn’t say them aloud.
Audrey at rest. She missed the "fun."

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Rainy Day (or Three) in Italy

We had not expected it, but the first week in October turned out to be rainy season in north-central Italy. Now we had prepared for rain, sort of. We had gone to Campmor and bought waterproof jackets. Audrey’s was “breathable,” if you know what that means. Mine was not, which turned out to be significant. Audrey had also bought waterproof pants, but had not removed the tags. In fact, this was the third straight year that she had purchased rain pants for our biking trips. And I’m almost positive they were the same pants, which might say something for Campmor’s slow movement of inventory. The previous two times Audrey had returned those pants following our trip, unworn and with the tags intact, for a full refund. How much fun was that!
The charming town of Borghetto was a little drippy, too.
The boat-shaped houses felt at home in the rain. 
Each year as she made the journey to return the pants, Audrey would recall and retell a story about her mother’s cousin Margot, who first came to the U.S. from her home in Brazil in the late 1960s. Margot’s fondest memory of New York was discovering that stores such as Lord & Taylor or Bloomingdale’s would let you buy something one day and then return it the next day. And the process didn’t cost you anything but time, which she enjoyed spending on shopping anyway. That amazed her. Several times, she went into those stores just for the fun of buying and returning.

That wasn’t our purpose in buying raingear. We wanted to have it on hand, but not to use it, of course. We just wanted to buy, pack, unpack, repack, and return. Luckily, Campmor’s didn’t seem to mind a few wrinkles.

So what went wrong this year? It rained . . . and rained. Our first three biking days featured dark clouds in the sky, moderate to hard rains disturbing our visibility and comfort, and puddles splashing us from below. Our tires kept spewing up rain and mud, and our sneakers got heavier and heavier as they filled with water. We spent those three days being soaked. As we returned to the hotel in Mantua each day, the staff helpfully provided us with towels to wipe our faces, arms, and legs, and pieces of newspaper to stuff into our shoes to soak up the puddles we were sloshing in. It was, to use a technical term, “yucky.” Almost as bad was the fact that the hotel’s heat was not yet operating, and the heated towel racks in out bathrooms did not work either. We literally had to suck up the moisture. Luckily, the heat and towel racks were working at our next hotel, so we finally dried out after our third day of riding.

Our heroes looking a little bedraggled. How come
only one of us looks sexy when wet?

I am, undoubtedly, being a little overdramatic here, but it is not much fun biking in the rain. Still you do learn some important information about raingear. Most importantly, you learn that you get what you pay for. Our friends Harvey and Phyllis invested in Goretex, spending nearly $200 for their jackets and half that for their pants. Which seems a little outrageous, right? We spent about a third of that. As a result, they remained pretty dry and uncomplaining. We were drippy and sour. (Do you think that’s why the other riders seemed friendlier toward Harvey and Phyllis than toward us—or was that just my imagination?)

Still, once our clothes dried out and the skies cleared up, the riding got to be a lot more fun. Except for the day when we were bombarded by swarms of gnats. But that’s another story entirely. . . .

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Remembering and Honoring

This is a follow-up to my last post about how my mother-in-law helped rescue her family after Kristallnacht, 75 years ago today. The day after I published that posting, Audrey received an email from a teacher in Bad Konigshofen (her mother’s hometown in Bavaria) who described how the town was remembering that terrible night and honoring the Jews who were hurt, imprisoned, or forced to flee after November 9, 1938. I wanted to share that email and fill in a few more blanks.
But, first, a little background.

My daughter Amanda spent the first semester of her junior year of college in Prague, studying a little and socializing and traveling a lot. Twice her travels took her into southern Germany. The first was, of course, to Munich during Oktoberfest. The photos she emailed us showed a happy, glassy-eyed young woman in full celebration mode. And they were taken at 9:30 a.m.!

Her second trip was a labor of love carried out a few months later. As I noted previously, my mother-in-law left her home in Bad Konigshofen in 1937 under not the best of situations. Conditions were getting worse for Jews in southern Germany, and she decided to flee. I am not sure why the rest of her family stayed behind, but I imagine they were not as fearless or adventurous as my mother-in-law. Or maybe they still believed that Hitler and the Nazis were a passing phase. Luckily, the immediate family members—her parents and brothers—eventually made it out safely. Many other close relatives did not.

My mother-in-law left Germany for good in 1937 and maintained a promise she made to herself never to return, even for a visit. Still, she hoped that her daughter or grandchildren might one day visit her childhood home and connect to their roots there. And Amanda was doing just that in early December 2004. Through connections too intricate to explain, she had been put in touch with a woman in Konigshofen born after the war but deeply interested in the plight of the town’s Jews, all of whom had fled or been forced out in the late 1930s. The woman, Elisabeth Böhrer, had offered to meet Amanda at the train station in town and give her a personal tour of all the places that might have a connection to our family. That tour included the building in which the Malzer grain business had been located and the house nearby where they had lived until 1939. It also included the Jewish cemetery in which the graves of at least three generations of ancestors were located. Sadly, most of the headstones from the cemetery were toppled or out of place. They had been knocked over by the Nazis and used as steps. We know this because of information included in a touching article written by a local reporter discussing Amanda’s visit.
A few gravestones that have been set upright

Here is an excerpt of that article, with translation provided thoughtfully, and hopefully accurately, by Google. It seems pretty amazing to me in its criticism of both the Nazis and the German Republic’s actions following World War II.

On the trail of Jewish grave fields

Bad Königshofen—Amanda Goodman from New Jersey, USA, is a student in Prague. As a person interested in history, she visited the nearby town of Bad Königshofen to explore the roots of her family. . . .

Her grandmother, Franzi Malzer, emigrated to England in May 1937 and continue on from there in 1940 in an eleven-day crossing to the United States. She still lives in New York and now calls herself after marrying Frances Katzenstein. Her parents Max and Bianca and her brother Hans followed to England in 1939 and 1940 to the United States. Thus, they would flee the Nazi captors.

Her Uncle Albert died in 1936 in King Mayrhofen and is also buried here. His wife Regine came to a Würzburg nursing home and died shortly before the beginning of the deportations and is buried in Würzburg. The grandparents are also in the cemetery at King Mayrhofen.

In conversation with Elizabeth Böhrer from Sondheim in Rhon, who is familiar with Jewish history in the region, Amanda said that her grandmother Frances reported for the first time about her history after Amanda had visited Theresienstadt near Prague where her other grandparents had died.  For over half a century she (Franzi) had been silent about these horrific acts.

The tour also led the American past the memorial stone for the synagogue. The synagogue had been built as a proud religious expression in 1901 when the Jewish community had almost one hundred members and inaugurated in 1904.
A plaque noting Nazi destruction in Bad Konigshofen

The impressive building was then perceived as an ornament of the city and a cultural enrichment, as evidenced by contemporary accounts. Moreover, the building added to the outstanding architectural ensemble of the Bamberg road. After the looting and desecration in the pogrom and in the following years was found after the war, no one who wanted to preserve the cultural showpiece. The synagogue was sold and removed in the early 50s.

In this way the Federal Republic of Germany destroyed testimonies of Jewish culture in the beginning of the democratic life. The Jewish cemetery was another destination of Amanda Goodman and Elizabeth Böhrer. This repeatedly desecrated place that is called in the Jewish religion as the "House of eternal life" or "House of Eternity," reflects the barbaric reality of the German past. Of the 47 grave stones that were built from 1921 to 1938, only a small portion remain and only a few are found at the right place.

The majority of the stones had been removed and used in the time of National Socialism as steps in the park. This is done as unprecedented desecration of the responsibility of the city at that time. The "eternal rest", a fundamental part of Jewish faith, was effectively destroyed.

Amanda’s visit made my mother-in-law feel very proud in the way it connected her own youth to her granddaughter’s. I think it was emotional for Amanda too.

Jump ahead a few years, and last fall Audrey received a request from a teacher in Konigshofen seeking photographs of her grandparents. We weren’t sure just what they were needed for, but we scanned in formal shots of the pair and sent them along.

Here is the message we received yesterday. It fills in more blanks about Audrey’s family in Germany and provides some insight into how the town is reflecting on its own past as it commemorates the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.:

Last year you sent me a picture of Max and Bianca Malzer. Thank you very much!

I had the opportunity to show them to my students and to a public audience several times.

During the last months I found out more about Max. He was no member of the city council, but his brother Albert was. Albert also played an important role as president of the Jewish community in the time when the synagogue was constructed. I think, the brothers had a good time until 1933, but afterwards they were victims of anti-Semitic attacks:

Both brothers, Max and Albert, were arrested and kept in prison at Bad Neustadt in March 1933 for two months. There was no trial, the Nazis called it "Schutzhaft" [protective custody].

In 1938 Max was arrested again and brought to Dachau.

Tomorrow, 75 years after the Pogrome of Nov. 9, 1938, the people of Bad Königshofen and the surrounding region "Rhoen-Grabfeld" are invited by priests of the two Christian churches to come together at certain places to remember the evil that was done to the former Jewish inhabitants. One of these places is the Jewish cemetery here at Bad Königshofen. After a short ceremony in memory of the victims of persecution the people will go home and put a candle light in one of the windows of their house.

It seems very appropriate that the people in Konigshofen will put candles in their windows in the same month that Jews will display Chanukah candles on their own windowsills. The Chanukah lights are a testament to Jewish continuity in the face of oppression, whether by Romans, Syrians, or Germans. We can only hope that the brightness of the candles, German and Jewish, can outshine the fires of Kristallnacht.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bravery in the Face of Hatred

It is no secret that Judaism is filled with irony. Throughout their history, Jews have had to cultivate a strong sense of humor, often needing to find laughter within their tears. So it is not surprising that we might need to read this Shabbat’s Torah portion, Va-yetze, with a sense of irony. Va-yetze is one of the most hopeful portions we read each year. In it, Jacob falls asleep on a rock (“Jacob’s Pillow”) and has a dream in which God tells him, “I will give to you and your seed the land where you are sleeping. And your seed will be as dust of the earth and spread in all directions, and through you will all the families on earth be blessed. I am with you and will guard you. I will not leave you until I have accomplished what I have promised." The narrative for this week also deals with Jacob’s marriages and the birth of his 12 sons, who will become the namesakes of the tribes of Israel. All positive stuff, you have to admit.

But this Shabbat also marks the 75th anniversary of the Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass,” when Hitler’s “brownshirts” broke windows in and set fire to synagogues throughout Germany. German Jews living through that night (and sadly many did not) probably began to doubt the positive message God had given Jacob in Va-yetze; they began to wonder if God was indeed on guard. And it took a special kind of bravery for German Jews (and really all of us) to put aside their doubt and to go forward after that evening.

The inside of a German synagogue the morning after
So it is bravery that I want to write about.

On November 10, 1938, my mother-in-law, Frances Malzer, was 23 years old and living in London. She had left home all alone the year before, following her family’s urging that she leave Hitler’s Germany, and was eking out an existence as a domestic helper for a German Jewish family living in England. She once laughingly told us that she was not a very good housemaid, and she didn’t get along very well with the woman of the house. My mother-in-law was always very neat, but I don’t think she ever enjoyed cleaning—and certainly not for other people. She also spoke very little English at the time. She was a little nervous that she might get fired and be left even more alone in a strange country.

Frances Malzer, probably around 1938

So imagine how she must have felt when she received an urgent telegram from her parents on November 10, 1938. Her parents were living in a small town in Bavaria, almost too small to make an impact on a German map but filled with enough Jews to arouse the anger and attention of the brownshirts. I am not sure just what the telegram said, but the message was loud and clear: GET US OUT OF HERE!

And this singular woman set about doing just that. With her limited English and even more limited resources, she began looking for someone who could help sponsor her parents to leave Germany and come to England or even America. Now, my mother-in-law seldom talked about these events, so I can only guess at them. Somehow she communicated with cousins in Germany or German Jews in England who let her know that a distant cousin living in New Orleans, of all places, was wealthy enough and family-centered enough to provide the financial help and documentation to get her parents and brother out of Germany. So she set the wheels in motion, finding a way to contact Edgar Stern (whose wife was the daughter of one of the founders of Sears & Roebuck) and appeal to him to rescue her family.

(Here I must digress with another ironic twist. Edgar Stern and his wife had a daughter named Audrey. It was not a common name, but my mother-in-law really liked it. So perhaps as a way to thank her cousin or simply because she liked the name, my mother-in-law named her only child— my wife—Audrey. All to the good. But somehow the Malzers and Sterns had very little to do with each other once the Malzers arrived in New York. My wife’s family never cultivated a relationship with their REALLY RICH cousins! Sadly ironic, and enough to make you laugh and cry at the same time.)

More on bravery. My wife’s uncle Harold, her mother’s younger brother, was never a very warm or engaging person. We have several family anecdotes that back that up. He was also not a very lucky person. On November 10, 1938, he was 18 years old and on an outing for Orthodox Jewish youth being held far away from his family home in Bavaria. So he was a Jewish kid all alone in a country in which Jews like him were being set upon in the streets by Nazis or their sympathizers. He once told us a little of what happened to him then. Over the next several days, he hid out during the days and managed to slip onto trains at night, until he could finally rejoin his parents. It must have been a harrowing experience. He did get to England with his parents soon afterwards, but then his unluckiness resurfaced. He found himself unwittingly enlisting into the British army to fight the Germans. It would be several years before he too would make it to New York.

Frances (Franzi) and her brother Harold (Hans)
 as children in Germany

I think Audrey’s family may have one more connection to Kristallnacht. In the days following that terrible night, thousands of Jewish men (as many as 30,000 according to the U.S. Holocaust Museum) were thrown into concentration camps in Germany, accused of the crime of being Jewish. I know that Audrey’s father was sent to Dachau, the camp in southern Germany, at around that time and long before he met my mother-in-law in New York. How did he get there? What was his experience like? How did he get out? He never talked about any of that. So many European Jews, it seems, never wanted to tell their children about the ways they suffered. I think they wanted to spare their children any painful memories. So we are left wondering and filling in the blanks ourselves.

For my own ancestors, safely in America long before 1938, Kristallnacht was a news event, painful to read about or view in newsreels but not very threatening. For Audrey’s family, the event was harrowing and called for fast action, quick wits, and great bravery. It took all of that for them to be able to be in a position to experience God’s promise to Jacob that they would be blessed. That seems ironic to me, but it also makes me proud.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Cinque Terre Challenge

Ever since we watched Rick Steves explore the Cinque Terre on public television about 10 years ago, Audrey and I have wanted to go there to visit the five villages that Steves calls “one of God’s great gifts to tourism.” (Amanda has also lobbied to go with us should we ever decide to make the trip, but we couldn’t bring her this time.) On our screen, Rick lithely loped along the path between two of the five hillside villages, stopping to share a succulent cactus fruit with a local farmer and smell the lemon blossoms. Then he boarded a local train that literally hopped between two other villages. His short-sleeve summer-color shirt remained neatly tucked in the entire time. There was not a drop of sweat in sight, not a hair out of place. After Audrey, Phyllis, Harvey, and I slowly and tortuously (at times) traversed, climbed, dipped, slid, and even crawled along the rocky path between villages for more than three hours, we wondered, “Just where had Rick Steves actually been in that video?” And we had hiked between only two of the five villages; we couldn’t imagine having the stamina to walk the entire pathway.

This was day 2 of our Italian biking adventure. We were going on a leisurely stroll that we hoped wouldn’t tire us out too much before the actual biking would begin the following day. Oh, how misguided we were!

Please don’t get me wrong. I do not mean to disparage the Cinque Terre, which is spectacularly beautiful. And I don’t really mean to put down Rick Steves, whose tour videos I really enjoy. It’s just that we were not prepared for the real Cinque Terre. The pathway between towns five and four —Monterossa and Vernazza—is only about three kilometers in length, and Steves estimates that it will take a “fit hiker” less than 2 hours to complete. It took us more than 3½. And by the end I was breathing hard and really sweaty, and my shirt was untucked (as usual). Now, admittedly, Steves does call that part of the trail “the most challenging,” so we should have been warned. We also should have been warned when a young couple we met at the start of the trail (who had just completed the trip from the other direction) offered to give us their trail passes for the next day for free (“No way we’ll be using them,” they shared).

But we were in the Cinque Terre at last. And on vacation! So we set off on the first leg of our tour of the “five lands.” I won’t provide a full play-by-play, but here is a little of the flavor of our “stroll.” We started on the beach in Monterosso and began a slow but steady climb up the hillside, heading southeast. The path quickly turned from dirt trail to stone steps (some fairly steep), then to narrower steps, leading to an even narrower trail that looked out over a hillside vineyard and many fruit trees. On some of the trees were lemons as large as etrogs, the Israeli citrus fruit that is part of the Sukkot celebration. Even as we held tightly onto the rock walls, we were enticed to take photo after photo, looking back toward Monterosso and forward toward what we hoped would soon be Vernazza. How beautiful was this!
A view of Monterosso where we began our climb

Being 60-somethings, we often found ourselves moving aside on the trail as much as we comfortably could to let younger tourists pass us by. “They must be the fit hikers Rick Steves mentioned,” I thought. I also wondered just why they weren’t sweating or huffing and puffing.
Hanging on as we get closer to Vernazza
I kept telling myself that once we reached the highest point in the trail and began heading downhill, it would go easier for us. But I hadn’t figured on the effect of heavy rains that had fallen in the region in the days before our visit. The downhill rocks and steps were better gravity-wise, but they were somewhat slick and tough on the knees. Still, everywhere we looked there was something unusual and picturesque, demanding to be photographed. There were the cactus covered with fruit, just like the ones Rick Steves had shared with the farmer. There were flowering bushes literally springing out of the rocks. There was even a workman incongruously blocking our path with a cart filled with more stones. Where could he be taking them?
And there at last were the pastel-colored houses of Vernazza, crowding a small harbor on the coast of the Ligurian Sea. And we were being welcomed by a singular saxophone player, whose notes bounced off the hillside. I think he had his case open for tips, but most of us were too busy wiping the sweat from our eyes to notice.

One last picture before we enter Vernazza

We had made it to Vernazza. Whew!

We explored the town and decided to pick out a restaurant for lunch. Characteristically, Phyllis wanted us to go to the one that sat atop a steep wall of steps. (Phyllis is part mountain goat, I am convinced.) And she wasn’t satisfied with our climbing just one set of steps. “The ones on the next level will have an even better view,” she insisted. We talked her down, literally, and she agreed to let us be seated at tables on the second terrace. Our waiter was gracious and oh-so-Italian. “My name is Andrea, like-a Bocelli,” were his first words. He proceeded to flirt with all of the women at our table and the ones nearby too. He brought us wine and pasta and never stopped charming us until we were rested and stuffed and happy. We had friendly thoughts about Rick Steves again.

As we climbed down from the restaurant, Phyllis came up with a new idea. “Let’s walk off lunch by hiking to Corniglia (the next town),” she suggested. Audrey and I shook our heads, stamped our feet, and pointed to the train instead. It took a few minutes of convincing, but the train it was. Of course, when we got to Corniglia after a two-minute train ride, we read Rick Steves’s description and noted that the town center was some 33 flights and 382 steps above the train station. 382 steps! Up! So we climbed, even though we realized that we would eventually have to descend 382 steps to get back to the train.

And it was worth it. If we go back to the Cinque Terre, we plan to find a room in one of the narrow alleyways in Corniglia and bask in its atmosphere for 2-3 days. Now that would be a “great gift to tourism.”

In Corniglia, the alleyways are so narrow
 you can almost touch the walls on both sides.
Day 2 of our Italian adventure was filled with a crazy bus and train ride, a death-defying hike, and way too much exercise. After this, the biking was bound to be easy. Right? R-i-g-h-t!

Friday, November 1, 2013

You CAN Get There from Here, but It Won’t Be Easy

We started off our biking adventure in Italy with a walking adventure in the Cinque Terre. The Cinque Terre, which is located on the northwestern coast of Italy along the Ligurian Sea, was a hidden treasure until Rick Steves started singing its praises about 20 years ago in his tour books and public television broadcasts. Now its narrow footpaths and quaint villages tucked into steep cliffs are filled with tourists eager to follow Steves’s advice to “take it slow . . . smell the cactus flowers and herbs, notice the lizards, listen to birds singing in the olive groves, and enjoy vistas on all sides.”

Cactus in flower above the Cinque Terre town of Vernazza
From our recent experience visiting the region, Steves has not understated its beauty or charm, but he surely has underestimated how challenging a hike through the Cinque Terre can be. And, for us, just getting to the five tiny towns presented its own challenge!

We were based for our first two nights in Italy in another tiny Ligurian coastal town, Portovenere. We Americans pronounced the name (port-oh-ven-AIR-ee), accenting the penultimate syllable (how literary does that sound!) until we discovered that real Italians put the accent on the third syllable from the end (port-oh-VEN-uh-ree). No matter how you pronounce it, Portovenere occupies only a small spot on the map and is not a transportation hub. To get the few kilometers northwest to the Cinque Terre, we would first need to travel northeast about 8 kilometers (5 miles) by public bus to the nearest city, La Spezia, a “blue-collar” metropolis filled with industry, traffic, and part of the Italian naval fleet. Once in La Spezia, we could walk a few blocks to the train station and board a Genova-bound train for a brief 18-minute ride to the first of the Cinque Terre towns, and a 27-minute ride to the fifth town, Monterosso del Mare, where we planned to begin leisurely hiking and exploring.

"Downtown" Portovenere close up and from a distance.
The structures in the water are mussel pots, where the tasty delicacies are farmed.
 Of course, traversing the five miles from Portovenere to La Spezia took about 45 minutes by bus. But I am getting ahead of myself. To board the bus, you needed to have purchased a ticket previously (you couldn’t just pay the driver). That meant using the ticket machine in the small bus stand, which noted that it accepted 10-euro and 5-euro notes (but really didn’t). So one of us (me) hiked back to the hotel to request some euro coins to feed the machine. The hotel staff was obviously hoarding those coins for better clients, and would change only one 5-euro note, enough to purchase 2 tickets, with 1-euro change, but not enough to help any of our fellow travelers to buy tickets. When all was said and done, one couple boarded without tickets, offering the driver paper notes, which he refused. So they rode for free, and no one seemed too upset by it.

We had a general idea of where to debark in La Spezia to be close to the train station and asked the driver to give us a heads-up when we were near. We debarked, walked through the middle of a packed market-day crowd, and followed street signs during a brisk 10-minute walk to the train station. Using hand signals, we managed to buy our tickets, which would include our trail pass for the Cinque Terre, and to determine on just which platform we should stand to await the train. The train station was bustling, which was all pretty invigorating. After all, we were going to the Cinque Terre! And despite the fact that we were carrying cameras, iPhones, hats to ward off the sun, and a backpack containing a Rick Steves guidebook, we imagined ourselves not as American tourists but as Italian natives, riding local buses and trains.

I plan to write about our actual hiking in Cinque Terre in my next posting (please stay tuned), but I still want to describe our adventure getting back to Portovenere later that same day.

We were pretty worn out, as you can imagine when we trained back to La Spezia (or you will be able to understand better after you read my next post). Now, we had to buy bus tickets and find our way from the train station to the nearest bus stop. This was not as easy as retracing our earlier steps, even if we could remember them exactly. The street on which he had debarked from the bus earlier that day had been one way; now we needed to go in the opposite direction. Audrey took the initiative to ask directions in the train station, and emerged with a marked up map. Of course, Phyllis, Harvey, and I questioned whether the directions she had been given were right. Somehow, we each thought we knew a better way to go. Inevitably, we got a little lost. Harvey needed something from a supermarket we passed, and Audrey went in to try to ask for more directions. A few seconds later, an animated young woman Audrey had approached behind the deli counter in the market emerged from the store with an older man, and the two of them began debating in rapid Italian just where to send us to get the bus. Finally, the woman threw up her hands (she WAS Italian after all), and shouted at us to follow her. She proceeded to race three blocks ahead, while we tried to keep up. We arrived at a main street, where she pointed out a bus stand less than a block away. I’m not sure we could ever have found it without her help. We turned to thank her, only to discover that she was already racing back to the store, probably to finish slicing salami for a customer who must have been wondering where she had gone.

Portovenere's busy marina
We boarded the P bus, and joined a rush-hour crowd already onboard. Some 30 minutes later, the bus pulled into Portovenere, but not the part of the town in which were staying. We had arrived at the end of the line, it seems. Luckily, the driver indicated that he would take us by our hotel a few minutes later, when he began that next part of his route. And he did. We had had quite a day, wending our way to and from La Spezia, with a hike through the Cinque Terre in between. We had been adventurers à la Rick Steves. And this was just our second day in Italy!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Being Italian for 10 Days

For the third straight year, Audrey and I embarked on a biking vacation in Europe. That sounds more ambitious than it really is. “Tour de Francers” we are not. We look for regions that are flat and tours labeled “active” and “easy,” during which we can plan to pedal 30-35 miles per day at a leisurely pace with frequent stops for rest and snacks. Two years ago, we rolled through Holland, biking into quaint cities such as Haarlem, Leiden, and Gouda (whose name we learned is pronounced How-dah with a guttural H; we bought cheese there, of course). Then, last year, we went to Belgium, which our guide noted was as old and flat as Holland but with the added attraction of producing more than 300 excellent beers. And we got to sample some of those beers in places such as Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp. We also ate more moules and frites than we should.
This year, we headed to north-central Italy, where we planned to ride in the flat (or so we were told) Po River valley and the region near Lake Garda. We called it our “Shakespearean tour,” which would begin in Mantua and end in Verona. It’s a region filled with grape vineyards, olive groves, and orchards where the trees were proudly bearing kiwis, persimmons, and pomegranates, almost ready for picking.

Did you know kiwis grew like this?

We also discovered, to our chagrin, that the region is pretty hilly. I’ll write more about that element of our adventure in a later blog. You won’t want to miss it. It will include an account of my being easily left in the dust by an elderly woman pedaling with her groceries uphill. I was dying; she wasn’t even breathing hard, and she was smoking a small cigar while she rode!
Audrey and Phyllis take a break from biking
If having to maneuver the hills was the —you’ll pardon the pun—low point of our adventure, experiencing being Italian for 10 days was the high point. It’s hard not to be upbeat in Italy. The people always speak with a lilt in their voices, especially when they speak English, where they add a vowel syllable at the end of many words (skies-a, bells-a, lake-a). Even the Italian word for “thank you,” grazie, we discovered needed an extra syllable to be pronounced properly—“gratz-ee-ay,” and not simply “gratz-ee.” We began each day with a quick lesson in Italian offered by our vivacious guides, Claudio and Carlotta. We didn’t learn just words; we also practiced speaking with our hands the way Italians do.  Did you know that waving your hand back and forth in front of your forehead means “you’re crazy,” but waving it below your nose means ‘you stink”? Claudio and Carlotta also had a way of bouncing when they spoke, rocking their shoulders, heads, and hands. It became contagious. Soon many of our group were bouncing, too.

Claudio and Carlotta, bouncing and using body language

Audrey and I actually got off to a rocky start in our learning to be Italian, and we discovered that Italian waiters have something in common with New York waiters—they speak their mind, though sometimes more in their expressions than in their words. In our first two days, which we spent in the coastal town of Portovenere, Audrey and I unwittingly committed two restaurant faux pas. The first night, we ordered a fried mixed fish dish that begged (in our American minds) for some marinara sauce in which to dip the fish. When Audrey asked for the sauce, she got a perfectly blank expression from the waiter. “Sauce?” he asked. “A plate of sauce?” “No, just a small bowl,” Audrey explained. The waiter went mumbling back to the kitchen but emerged with the sauce. The next night I topped that one. I had ordered pasta with scampi. When I asked for grated cheese, I received a stare. “With fish?” the waiter, who was also the owner, asked incredulously. He brought out the cheese but looked at me funny while I spooned it on the pasta. Then he happily brought more red wine, which we made sure to drink like Italians.

We also discovered that being Italian meant looking at time a little differently, particularly historic time. Near the end of our trip, we were taken on a guided tour of Verona. In one main square, our guide pointed to a building in one corner and said it was constructed in the 1200s, the one next to it in the 1400s, and the one across the way in the 1600s. “That last building,” she said, “is much younger. It is only 250 years old.” Which makes me think of a story from an earlier trip Audrey and I made to southern Italy 10 years ago. One couple on our trip had been in the Sorrento area 55 years before on their honeymoon. They seemed surprised that the buildings and squares seemed much the same, even after half a century. In many areas of Italy, 55 years is just a blink of the eye.

Dante and a pigeon stand guard in Verona

So maybe the Po River valley in Italy wasn’t as flat as Holland. And maybe we were “forced” to drink wine instead of beer as in Belgium. And to eat pizza and pasta almost every day. And to sample several different flavors of gelato. And to pick grapes off the vine while trying to avoid the gaze of an annoyed farmer. And to speak with our hands. And to climb hills slowly in the wake of elderly women smoking cigars. And to feel a little timeless. Bellissimo!