Vacation Interlude in Turkey

Leaving Fethiye bay…

Freelancers and the self-employed seldom go on real vacations. Especially since the advent of instant and frenetic communication, which keeps us in line better than one of Calvin’s egregious ordonnances.  But….

… when I do choose to step out of the daily grind, it’s usually to go someplace where the electronic cookie monster is less active, or at least where the barriers to get online are higher or impossible to surmount. It’s a bit of a risk, of course, clients are impatient, but it’s only for short periods … This year, 2019, thanks to some friends and neighbors, we went on a seven-day boat trip exploring the Gulf of Fethiye on the southern corner of the country’s western coast, near to where the Mediterranean meets the Aegean.

 

Fethiye, a bustling town of about 80,000, is in fact a vacation destination in Turkey, which explains why the plane from Istanbul, a massive 777, was packed to the gills. It landed in Dalaman, after which we took a bus to Fethiye to spend one night in a pleasant hotel by the sea. The next day, we met up with our friends from Geneva, a Turco-Swiss family, and headed to the pier, where the Seahorse awaited, fueled and stocked up with food and water, of course.  The boat is a gulet, a traditional two-master, whose sails, I later found out, are not really used anymore, unless there is an emergency. The boats were used for carrying freight and are therefore quite large and tend to roll easily.

The Seahorse, 100-foot “gulet”

By midday on the 3rd ,  the seven expected families were now all on board, the bags were stashed in the cabins (each with a small bathroom), which were fairly hot and musty. No surprise, since the temperature outside was about 37 °C. They would be air-conditioned twice or three times a day to avoid wasting generator fuel, I guess. As it turned out, hardly anyone slept in the cabins anyway, since the weather was dry throughout…. The teenagers on board rapidly occupied the sea of mattresses over the wheelhouse, which gave a spectacular view of the night skies. Others found space over the cabin section under a canvas an acre in size that kept all protected from the imperious sun. I staked a claim on the generous divan aft, which gave a glimpse of the sky and left enough space for my legs…

In addition to the twenty-one passengers, there were six crew members. The captain and owner of the ship is Mehmet Avcu, a wiry fellow with a deep knowledge and love of the sea and the local history.  A 20-plus year stint with the Turkish Navy left him with a slightly commandeering tone, but whenever we had a question about strange creatures or local lore, we could just pick his brain. He was the boss on board, as tradition has it, and his word was gospel. He not only steered the ship to the right places and kept operations running smoothly, but also turned into a veritable encyclopedia of information about marine life and local history. Spotting that some of us were also interested in the region, he didn’t hesitate to take us on tours onto the land. One day it was an island with a few Byzantine ruins and a few of goats, another time it was to visit a farming settlement on a spit of land sparsely covered with olive trees, Turkish pines, carob trees… .

Kizil Island in the Gulf
Sea and sky in the early morning

We set off. The sea was slightly choppy for the first hour or so, giving all a chance to test their seaworthiness. We soon found a quiet space at the foot of a craggy mountain – all mountains are craggy here – in a pleasant cove, where lunch was served on the deck aft: plates of different salads and vegetables, broccoli in a lemony sauce, a dish of charred eggplant, rice pilaf, a mixed salad, and purslane simply dressed with yogurt (a ubiquitous sauce in Turkish cuisine, it is a little richer than many yogurts available in Europe). The salt and pepper on the table was augmented by a jar of pul biber, crushed red peppers, and a bottle of nar ekşisi, a sticky, sour, fruity balsamico made of pomegranates.

As for activities, well…. swimming, snorkeling, and, for a surcharge, diving with aqualungs. The younger ones quickly discovered the thrill of flying off the taffrail, while the adults usually used the starboard ladder to get down to the sea, which was, as usual, blue and clear, and very warm. Two of the teenagers opted for genuine diving. I chose to snorkel with my 15-year-old daughter, who received her real salt-water baptism in these glorious waters.

A few hours after lunch, we raised the anchor and moved off to another cove for dinner (always around 8 pm) and to spend the night. A few more dives into the dark and inviting waters closed off that first day. Quickly, almost surreptitiously, all made their respective beds and went to sleep. The sea was mirror calm, but with a gentle swell that rocked boat from side to side. It was like being in a cradle again. Other boats could be seen (as every night thereafter) in the night, their position lights vying for attention with the stars, those points of safety that have shepherded mariners across the Seven Seas for eons. At some point in the night, the cicadas went to sleep, apparently all at once.

This established the pattern of the next six days. Three opulent meals shared at the large table punctuated the flow of time. Breakfast with cheeses, jams, fruit, and eggs sometimes hard-boiled, sometimes scrambled or fried; lunch with an array of cold dishes, rice, stews; dinner which sometimes included charcoal-broiled fish or meat done on a curious grill hanging off the starboard rail near the bow. And always accompanied by the delicious Turkish breads also made freshly onboard. One night, after a few glasses of raki loosened the limbs and spirits, there was some singing (Turkish love songs, an old Viking song in Swedish, …) followed by dancing on the forever gently swaying deck.

Time on the Seahorse flowed quietly along, with endless hours chatting, staring out to sea, reading, playing cards or backgammon, and naturally swimming.  The use of goggles to swim made the activity far more interesting than the usual lengths in a pool. The rocky seabed made for particularly clear water, through which one could see small colonies of long-spine sea urchins and strange sea cucumbers resembling bits of rubber hose. We spotted a few small rays, otherwise  there were just schools of minnow-like  fish, who would scamper away when we came near them, glittering in the sun — though one passenger did try angling, without success — but did bring back garbage that others had decided to dump into the sea, plastic bags, empty cans, metal caps, and bits of rope.

The view from Gelimer Island

 

Karacaroen Island….

Every now and then we’d leave our floating home to rejoin the community of landlubbers. One time it was to the diminutive Karacaoren island to stagger through Byzantine ruins and untamed brush in 40-degree heat. The next expedition was to Gemiler Island to explore more Byzantine church ruins and watch the sun go down in a spectacular canvas of warm colors.  One fellow who allegedly walked these rocky, dusty, rugged slopes was none other than St. Nicholas of Myra, the gentleman who later became Santa Claus. While that does sound a little stretched, one does wonder how in earth people back in the 6th or 7th centuries built these fairly large structures, or the spectacular covered staircase that leads up to the highest church?

It was not all Byzantine. Göbün, on the northwestern entrance of the gulf, features some Lycian graves that were up on a cliff side (unreachable in the burning sun) and the remains of a Roman bath now half submerged. The narrow  strip of land is inhabited by farmers in jerry-rigged dwellings. According to Mehmet, they are more or less squatting the land and arguing with the government for official rights to it.

On a more contemporary note: We also stopped at the port of Göcek, a favorite hub of yachtsmen apparently, whose presence spawned numerous chic shops and restaurants mostly with inflated prices. At the entrance of the bay, a long, stern-grey, ship-sized yacht, the 126-meter Flying Fox, allegedly belonging to Jeff Bezos. No one was quite sure. There was some buzz on board about that.

Göcek port

 

Tree-hugging, crafty style…

All in all, it was a beautiful trip. In retrospect, the coves and inlets, bays and beaches flow into one another in memory. The conversations were fun, sometimes rich. I scanned some of the books fellow passengers were reading and found one crew member reading a work by Tolstoy, the title was a question, so it may have been the essay “What Is Art?”. On the crew’s kitchen table lay a book on Latin America. Another was reading Bulgakov’s Master and Margerita.  In fact, I was told that Russian literature is popular in Turkey… By the time we returned to Fethiye on Friday, we had all made friends, created a WhatsApp group, and sworn contact with one another.  Stepping onto the hard pier was not all that easy. The sun, now untampered by the sea breeze, hammered down, and the speed of the small town For days, our blood had been rocked by the sea, and, as if by dint of resonance, our bodies continued to feel the motion for days.

Snapshot: my mother at work

My mother, Karen Radkai, was a remarkable photographer and an edgy personality.

In late 2017, I received an email from the “Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí” in Figueres with a special request: They needed biographical information on my mother, Karen Radkai, for a pending photography exhibition called “The Women who photographed Dalí” based on their collection. They also needed some photographic material.

The request serendipitously dovetailed with my slow, but painstaking work on a biography of my mother and father, both photographers of some note, especially around the mid-20th century. And so, I ultimately wrote the entry to the exhibition’s catalogue. It is not a “private view.” My copious notes and memories are for another time and a fuller publication.

“What doesn’t kill us, makes us harder…” The famous quote from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Gods, appropriately taglined “How to philosophize with a hammer,” rings in my ears when I think of my mother, Karen Radkai. She was not the easiest person to be around or to grow up with. She was, however, someone who left a mark, and lots of photographic material.

Karen Radkai photographed by Paul Radkai
Karen Radkai, 1949, with her trusty Rolleiflex (she also used Hasselblads), photographed by her husband, Paul Radkai.

Brash, brilliant, outspoken and highly opinionated, she could make enemies out of friends within minutes, but could also attract the loyalty of those who were willing to give her space, who recognized the person behind the lens, who saw and appreciated the very fine – and extremely myopic – eye she had. She was also ambitious, had endless energy resources, and a kind of resilience that could drive any normal person to distraction. A large part of the energy came from her passion for her work, as such. She had the great good fortune of living at a time when photography had reached a kind of creative apotheosis and was firmly in the hands and fingers of a small, busy, gifted elite of perceptive editors, publishers, and photographers, of course.

She was born in 1919, in Munich. She once told me that she had already started photographing as a child. It was a hobby she enjoyed, and somewhere amongst her papers, I do hope someday to find some of those old shots. Otherwise, among her earliest memories, was sleeping in a bathtub, because the inflation in the early 1920s in Germany had wiped out the family fortunes. Abandoned by her parents, who separated soon after her birth, she was sent to a convent, where, by her own account, she acquired the discipline that she maintained her entire life.

As a teenager, she left Nazi Germany for the USA, where her mother had moved to about eight years prior. She was working as a stylist in New York in the mid-1940s when she met a dashing Hungarian émigré, who was already a fairly well-established photographer, my father, Paul Radkai. He let her have his studio to work in and experiment – according to him. Her boundless energy and ambition bore fruit. Soon she became a protégé of the notorious Alexey Brodovich at Harper’s Bazaar.

Reared in a convent during the Weimar and early Nazi years made my mother a passionate liberal. She remembered teasing the guards at the Feldherrnhalle in Munich when on breaks in her native Munich.

She was twenty-nine when the magazine sent her on assignment to post-civil-war Greece to photograph Queen Frederica (herself a German granddaughter of Emperor Wilhelm II). While the pictures of that job are unavailable, I do own a stunning vignette from that journey that tells the entire story of my mother’s photographs and perhaps reveals the artistry of photography itself: She found the subject somewhere in the war-ravaged country. A man stands. He is looking down at an elderly woman shining one of his shoes. She is almost prostrate. The man towers over her. My mother, I realize looking at the image, did not actually seize that image. She saw it coming and caught the millisecond of the man’s contemptuous look. It also summed up a deep-seated feeling she had about how men treated women.

Her career was a steep upward curb for many years, despite personal setbacks and a marriage that went south for too many complicated reasons to enumerate. She had in all four children, but her true companion was her work, and that made her a favorite of many VIPs, particularly from the world of film and music. The childhood of my sisters and me was populated by some remarkable people and filled with special memories.

Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in a shot for Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, by Karen Radkai in our apartment in Paris.

Because she rubbed elbows with so many big names in the creative world – may I confess that I played chess with Man Ray some time around 1969? – my mother was rarely in awe of prominent personalities. Her approach to work was quite Germanic: You come, you do it, and when it’s finished, you pack up and left. I would say, this kept her quite objective when photographing, an important point, since she would not let her personal taste get in the way.

At some time in the 1960s, she and Paul, my father, bought a house in Cadaqués, the one behind the church up on the hill. It was a funny idea, a bit spontaneous, as I recall (she was like that: after selling that house, she bought an apartment in a small Austrian village from the billboard announcing the house was being built). The village was full of jet-setters and wannabes, rich people living a life akin to that of the rois faineants, odd-balls, social drop-outs, artists real and fraudulent, and Dali, of course, who used to stride into the Bar Meliton twiddling his mustache – I remember him, because, as a boy, I would play chess there. He’d arrive a little like an archbishop expecting his rig to be kissed by the faithful. I’ll be honest: My mother though him a little pretentious, and being a classic liberal, disagreed seriously with his approval of Franco. 

Meliton, a Dali haunt in Cadaquès


Salvador Dalì at the Bal de Bestegui, Venice 1951, photographed by Karen Radkai

But when she was sent to photograph him, she packed her equipment, took her trusty assistant, Vaughn Murmurian, and did the job, and did it well. Her first encounter with Dalì, however, was in 1951 at the famous Bal de Bestegui in Venice, which she and my father, Paul Radkai, attended as photo-reporters. She told me once that Dalí made a few coarse remarks about some of the activities he performed in one of his rooms. On that end, nothing could shock my mother. Especially coming from a man. I asked what she replied…. it was a comment about his age.

My mother also did a lot of advertising, but the photo-reportage was her favorite kind of work. And she was not only an assignment person. She had an unerring eye for what was photogenic, what would fit in a good magazine and so, over the years, she collaborated with many outstanding magazines, notably World of Interiors, a British Vogue publication, which at the time was brilliantly edited by Min Hogg.

As a son, as a freelancer like her, but with not nearly the talent, I find it difficult to separate the private and the professional. For years now, I have been working on gathering information for a kind of biography, not a list of jobs, not a curriculum vitae, but a personal one.  So I’d like to close with a small anecdote.


My mother and I did one job together. It was for House & Garden. The subject was the 18th-century Schloss Fasanerie near the archbishopric of Fulda in Hessen, Germany. She landed in Munich and, in spite of a generous expense account, picked up a small car. We drove the 400 kilometers to Fulda and set up shop in a B&B. No fancy hotels. We spent one day essentially walking around the palace, which was owned by Prince Moritz von Hessen, whom she admired for his ability to work and run businesses rather than jetset away the family fortune.

The Imperial Staircase at the Fasanerie (Fulda, Germany)

The next day, she photographed systematically, while I took note of the furnishings in each room, worried details, picked up the history of the castle and the family (with a long pedigree and some tragic events, especially in the 20th century).

A third day’s work was needed. Everything went very smoothly. But there was one little incident that, again, was typical: Throughout the three days, the house- and groundskeeper had stuck with us like fly-paper, opening doors and moving objects around. I tried to keep him out of my mother’s way, because I sensed he was getting on her nerves (as an amateur photographer, he’d keep making comments about photography, which she hated because, as the Germans would say, Dienst ist Dienst, Schnapps ist Schnapps). At one point, my mother asked if we could put some flowers in a vase, because otherwise everything looked too museum-like. The man said casually that vases in the 18th century then were not for flowers, but rather for decoration. And maybe she could photograph it another way… I did my best to distract, to change the subject, to interfere, because I could see my mother’s lips tightening, a slight pallor form along her nose. I knew that behind those sunglasses she always wore, her eyes were sending out 88mm flak shells. She hated anyone interfering with her work. And the gentleman was then subjected to a tongue-lashing that I can only sum up with “You do your work, and I’ll do mine.”



Thorny delight

… a trace of Calvinistic resistance to easy pleasures remains, and it is found on the festive tables amidst the smoked salmon, foix gras, oysters, calorie-laden bûches (the French pastry Yule log) and various wines. There you’ll find a delicacy whose rewards are only revealed and delivered after a long and arduous journey.

A look at a specialty on Geneva’s Yuletide tables.

One cannot help but think that if the Latin influence were not so strong in Geneva, Christmas might not be such a jolly affair in the city. Indeed, when dour and sour Calvin turned the place into a theocracy from about 1541 onward, with his rigid laws and set punishments running all the way to death by burning or drowning, he set a course still felt to this day. Among other things, he made fun and games anathema, and so Genevans had had to find ways to make merry without irritating already naturally irritable ghosts and deities. And his staunch hatred of bling meant that the local jewelers had to find a new way to practice their art: clock-making… But that is not the subject of this post…

From right to left, W. Farel (l.), Jean Calvin (m.), Theo. de Bèze (r.)… The reformers: “Don’t be happy, worry!”

Calvin prohibited anything and everything that could be remotely fun. Carnival is not celebrated in Geneva, for example. Calvin even went as far as prohibiting Christmas as a feast of idolatry and for a few hundred years after, the Genevans did not celebrate the Birth of Christ, Prince of Peace…Tell that to the wind machines ranting on about the fake “War-On-Christmas. What the city does have is the somewhat extreme and boisterous annual celebration called “Escalade,” the commemoration of a skirmish between the (Catholic) troops of the Duke of Savoy and the (Protestant) Genevans came right before Christmas 1602 on the Gregorian calendar. It comes along with fancy dress parties and general rejoicing and chocolate cauldron consumption. I have described this otherwise insignificant event outside Geneva in an earlier post.

All this to say: the influence of Calvin is still felt in Geneva. Ultimately, however, the Genevans did goback to celebrating Christmas. The city gears up in November already with wonderful lighting arrangements in the leafless trees, and shopping becomes more frenetic. But on Christmas Eve or Day, on the festive tables, amidst the smoked salmon, foix gras, oysters, calorie-laden bûches (the French pastry Yule log) and various wines, you’ll find a delicacy whose rewards, like Calvinistic grace, are only revealed and delivered after a long and arduous journey.

Image result for the Cardoon
Cardoons prior to preparation

The item in question is the cardon, in English cardoon, in Latin Cynara cardunculus, a thistle-like plant related to the artichoke found occasionally in the wild in Mediterranean regions and elsewhere.

Cardoon character
At first glance, it looks like some irksome and resilient weed requiring immediate annihilation. So, as with the olive and several other labor-intensive foods, one must marvel at the first people who figured out that the cardoon is edible and that it has a wonderful artichoke-like flavor with just a hint of bitterness and a fine texture.

It also has history. The Mediterranean people already cultivated it in antiquity. According to lore, it was Protestants from the south of France who brought it to Geneva following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 that deprived France’s Huguenots of their religious and civil rights. These families settled in the so-called Plaine de Palais (where the Bastions and National Theater is today) and continued cultivating their cardon, refining over the centuries to make it – guess what – even more thorny (épineux). Today, the “Cardon genevois épineux” is actually the only Swiss vegetable with a protected designation of origin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The slothful – Catholics, perhaps… no offense – will buy the vegetable already prepared, cut into short segments, and packed into large jars or in vacuum packed bags for up to CHF 15 the kilo. The self-respecting Genevan will purchase it fresh for about CHF 5 per kilo from one of the famed local market-gardeners (maraîchers) at any outdoor market.

The easy way to get cardons… buy it at the supermarket for about CHF 14,95…

You can’t miss it there: imagine a pale yellowish, oversized celery with a thick root. Occasionally they come stuffed in a plastic bag, not very ecological, but it will protect your hands from the thorns.

Taming the wild cardoon
From seed to table, the cardoon is all about the sweat on your brow.

A few years ago, Pierre Gallay, a gardener, explained the cultivation procedure to me. It’s sown in May and grows quickly in summer. In autumn, the leaves on each plant are folded up to promote natural bleaching. In November each cardon is then uprooted by hand along with some earth and put into cool cellars where it continues to grow and bleach out without risking frosts.

Geneva produces about 130 tons of cardons per year, according to the Association of Plainpalais Interests. These Genevan heritage enthusiasts also point out in traditional Calvinist style, that with its fibers and low calories, it is the perfect counterpart to the prandial “abuses” of year’s end.

To prepare it, shave off the thorny edges. Then peal the stalks as you would rhubarb or celery, pulling off the stringy ridges and skin. Cut up into inch-size pieces and tenderise overnight in a milk-water mixture. Then boil in salty water (about 30 minutes) with a dash of milk. Dress with cream (yes, but double cream from Gruyère) and pepper, or use the liquid for a béchamel to cover the cardons, sprinkle with Parmesan or Gruyère and bake till the cheese is a little crispy. You are now a step closer to being Genevan.

 

 

 

Geneva by night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angels in Geneva

This story is entirely true because I imagined it from beginning to end. Boris Vian (1920–1959) Preamble to L’écume des jours (Froth On The Days)

We all seek a measure of security in a connected, networked world, where corporate identity ensures global monoculturalism at all levels and offers the comfort of  familiar space. We can travel the planet without ever really seeing it, enjoy the exact same coffee in Singapore as in New York or Warsaw, buy the same clothes in shops that all look the same, hear the same shallow music with me-me-me lyrics, and even taste the same foods. Our hyper-technology tends to reinforce the uniformity around the globe, creating more safe space, removing all sting and thrill out of the adventure of life. Everything can be seen. And paradoxically, in the flood of images being traded across the globe every second of the day, it’s our imagination that suffers.Angels-05

Throughout their lives, puppeteers Tina and Michel Perret-Gentil chose to sally forth into the great unknown without fear of being disconnected. Their particular art of telling stories through their puppets engages the imagination far more than any movie or series of pictures on Instagram or Flickr. Their life and craft dispense metaphors that trigger chains of thoughts and eureka moments and genuinely slake our minds’ thirst for exploration of mystery and for more journeying.

Here’s the story of two very special people living a different life in Geneva.

Angels-01
Tina —- life on a string.

When Tina was 19, she packed up her bags, took the seeds of her life’s experience from a childhood and youth in the stark, majestic mountains of the Canton of Grisons in eastern Switzerland, and went down into the lowlands to plant them and see what might grow. The year was 1967; in the western world, a new generation of humans was taking its first hesitant steps away from the social and political straitjacket of a more conservative past. Change was in the air, and it was to break into full-fledged rebellion a year later in Paris and other European capitals. Geneva was not yet the pressure-cooker-like, global maelstrom of finance, oil, real-estate speculation and tarnished money it is today, but the presence of the UN and other international organizations already gave it a distinct stamp, a whiff of distant shores, of exoticism that contrasted with the in the quintessential Calvinist petit bourgeoisie of the city. It was a mix lacking elsewhere in the Alpine Republic.

Tina, née Marianna Katharina Casanova, who had learned French and done some secretarial training, had no ambitious plans for life. She just wanted to work at the post office and get a feel for life in a biggish city. “My aunts and my mother had worked at the post office in Obersachsen (her native village), and as a child I would help them deliver telegrams or express mail for pocket money,” she recalls. “I did that for a few months in Geneva but I realized I did not want to be behind a counter all day, I wanted to get out and deliver the mail, and be with the people.” And so her first seedlings withered quickly under the fluorescent assault of reality.

As time passed, however, she came to realize that the post-office job in itself was just a symbol for the determination and self-confidence bequeathed to her from her mother and aunts well before Swiss women even got the right to vote. The Grisons, that large mountainous Canton in Eastern Switzerland with its stark peaks, eight months of snow, where people still speak a derivative of Latin, Rumantsch, boasted particularly traditional values. “They were different from other women,” she says of those powerful women in her life, “they wore more jewels, they wore trousers, they were the first women to ski up there, they all made music, and I got a diatonic accordion for my ninth birthday,” she points out, a touch wistfully. “I had a wonderful childhood up in the mountains, close to nature.”Angels-07

When I visited Tina the first time to write this article, she was still close to nature. Her home, surrounded by greenery, is unique in and for Geneva, a city plagued by an extreme dearth of lodgings and where rents are astronomical. Almost forty years ago, she and her husband Michel slipped quietly into the nomadic lifestyle of rolling homes “It was not a conscious decision, it just happened,” she says, “but I couldn’t live in a house anymore today. Those poor Romas whom the government was always trying to force into homes, they must have gone crazy.”

They had four trailers, long, dark wooden structures that her life-long companion Michel Perret-Gentil had carefully and skillfully revamped, adding windows, insulation, wood paneling, and the occasional decorative touch. One was for sleeping, one for the office and atelier, there was one for each of their two children, who are now grown up and have children of their own. Her son Jan lived in Uganda for a while, where his wife worked for an NGO. Daughter Anna is in Geneva. For guests or other meetings, Michel put up a large yurt, the tent-like structure of wooden slats covered with felt used mainly in Mongolia.

At the time of the first interview, these homes were located in a garden lot in the Cherpines area of the city, which until May of 2011 had been zoned for agriculture. The two functional homes were placed so the doors face each other. Between the two was a simple picnic table covered in wax cloth and shielded from the rain by a canvas. Often, on warm days and nights, they sit together or with any of their innumerable friends and chat, dream and discuss projects. They are as gentle with the environment as possible, always using biodegradable soaps. The waste from the toilet is compost.

Puppets from Rajasthan live and entertain in Geneva
Puppets from Rajasthan live and entertain in Geneva

In their five years’ residence at the Cherpines, they had planted a wild garden with roses, some vegetables and herbs, dug a small pond, and even planted a willow, using offshoots from a tree at their previous residence. “Everyday I look at the flowers in the garden, I feel they are inhabited each by their own spirit, and that gives me strength as well and confidence.” These two words return in our conversations over and over again. Strength, confidence.

During our interview, we sat in the kitchen, essentially a wide corridor with a gas stove and an old wood cooking stove used on colder days. The walls are covered in mementoes, pictures, notes, drawings, post-its, the eclectic ephemera of a life on the road and with children. A shelf carries a crowd of strange objects, statuettes and, incongruously, an old shoe. The sheer immediacy of the outdoor takes away any feeling of being inside. It’s spring, and a host of sparrows, blue tits and blackbirds are carrying on a lively conversation. The west wind that brought a light rain is also shaking drops off the trees onto the roof above us and making the nearby highway more audible than usual. The cats come in and out of the open door. The air is rich with spices, herbal teas and espresso and a hint of patchouli, an aromatic anchor in Tina and Michel’s lives.

We sit opposite each other. Her eyes are dark aquamarine, almost grey. They take in everything without hunger, as if they could hear. She speaks in clear, emphatic tone, her French has the slight singsong of her native Swiss German, and every move of her long thin arms shakes a parade of bangles. She modulates her voice down to whisper sometimes, or stretches out a syllable beyond its shelf life.

Angels-08

A touch of theater is an occupational hazard: For nearly 38 years, Tina and Michel have been puppeteers, telling stories, singing, accompanying their little wooden actors with all manner of sounds and instruments. As such, they have become an integral part of the cultural scene in Geneva, appearing wherever there is some manifestation or celebration of the stage arts or children to entertain. They also launched a late spring festival called “Dust of the world” (Poussière du Monde), homage to nomadic culture featuring song recitals from the Maghreb or Colombia, or evenings of fairytales. It all takes place in a in the Parc Bernasconi in Geneva. The theater itself is in fact two magnificent concatenated Mongolian yurts, whose cloth walls are supported by slats intricately decorated with arabesques.

It is there, on a Sunday afternoon, that I picked up one of their shows. This one featured their kathputli puppets – a special type of string puppet originating in Rajasthan – enact vignettes from life and legend presented to the scratchy recordings of folk music taken from old 45s. The program opens with two puppet musicians playing… and very quickly you forget the intricate, perfectly timed pas-de-deux of the two puppeteers operating behind a simple anthracite backdrop. Among the more virtuosic scenes is an acrobatic horseman holding a torch on his galloping steed, a little scene featuring a woman who suddenly turns into a man, much to the disappointment of an eager suitor, and our horsemen joisting. It is a far cry from the flash-bang, often violent drama with which the entertainment industry usually tries to hypnotize spectators. But rows of children up front, some surely hardened Wii, Gameboy and TV users, are wide-eyed in fascination, so much so that they begin moving forward and at some point have to be guided back to their place.Angels-02

Puppeteering is a form of expression in metaphors. The tales always have some didactic or moral goal, or they are reflections of life itself and its sometimes absurd realities. Therein lies the fascination: Like court jesters, the puppeteers can reveal disguised truths for the audience. And after a while, the puppets themselves come alive, a little like Pinocchio, only less schoolmarmish: “The most extraordinary exchange occurs between them and us,” Michel once wrote. “We give them life, and in return they give us the possibility of living. Some are thirty years old. They don’t age. They wait discreetly, always ready for our hands to seize them. The wait is never very long, and when our hands take them it’s not just our hands doing the work, but our hearts are present as well.” By his own admission their creations avoid caricatures, sentimentality, irony and the spectacular, leaving “receptivity and imagination” in Michael’s words.

He is not just venting theory. The puppets are what sparked the couple’s unusual, nomadic lifestyle. They became “the means of transportation for a journey without a goal… Like the horizon, the goal is always escaping me,” he wrote.Angels-09

That journey began in the early 70s. After the post-office debacle, Tina learned to type and found work at a bank. It was then that she met Michel, a young man with curly hair, opaline-blue eyes, and the wild creative vein of an extramural philosopher. He liked his job washing windows. It gave him time to cultivate and expand his tangled web of thoughts while peering into opulent shops, thoughts that got him thrown out of the military within a week of passing muster. “He was filed as ‘socially not adapted’” Tina says with a broad laugh. “You should have seen his demeanor, plus he had a bunch of psychological reports. But we did have to pay a military tax after that.”

Inspired by friends who had visited India, they put money aside and, in 1971, bought a VW bus and drove to India by road. “It was a magnificent journey,” Tina recalls. There were adventures – such as people shaking their car at night – as they wended their way through the Balkans, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The beauty of discovering the world remains, tinged with the occasional thrill. “Afghanistan was simply marvelous, the people were hospitable, friendly,” she recalls. “Michel and I used to say that no one talked about the country because it was in peace, and look what happened, the Russians, oil, money.” They even stayed with smugglers near the Khyber Pass — “Guns, ammunition and Camel cigarettes! All over the place!” — who offered them an evening of music, dinner, and a night in silk sheets.Angels-05

They spent nearly a year in India and Nepal discovering a brand new culture. When it came time to return, however, war between India and Pakistan had broken out, so they abandoned their car and flew home with the help of wired funds.

Back in Switzerland, life continued, but their paradigm had shifted. One day they went to see a puppet play directed by a fellow named Michel Politti. It was a classic coup de foudre, love at first sight, when all the disparate parts of life seem to gell into a full-blown affirmation, a single, vibrant “yes!” They wanted to return to India anyway, so Angels-10through the Indian Tourist Board they found a center to learn how to make and activate the kathputli puppets of Rajasthan, one of the oldest forms of the art. They gave up their jobs and hit the road again, this time in a small, two-cylinder Ami 6 Citroen station wagon customized for camping. There followed six months of toil, learning to carve, sew and string up the kathputli, and create small, eye-twinkling, moving tales to entertain people.

Their return to Europe was not auspicious. The car’s engine froze up in Belgrade and they had to leave a large case filled with their freshly made puppets behind to take the train. Nevertheless, back in Geneva, at a little house rented from the city near the airport, they began rebuilding their stock. “We practiced a lot, and a woman saw us and asked if we would like play at the annual meeting of the Swiss puppeteers,” she recalls. “And would you believe it? Suddenly everyone wanted us. People would ask us how much money we wanted, we had no idea.”

The tours began. First to France, then Germany, later to Eastern Europe and England. Soon, they were able to live from puppeteering and decided to buy a big 1947 Saurer bus to save themselves the cost of hotels. Ironically, the vehicle had originally been used by the post office to transport people as well as mail. They travelled about 12,000 miles a year. When the children came (born in 1976 and 1980 respectively) the trips became shorter, or Michel’s mother had to step in as a baby-sitter. Their shows evolved and expanded as new puppets were created and new tales added. Michel had found his calling in the creation of a string of “circuses” with special puppets. In Pécs, Hungary, they won a prize for his “Cirque philosophique,” which combined music (Tina on accordion) and Latin texts. They performed at festivals and in schools, for Christmas and Easter.

Meanwhile, in 1982, the city of Geneva wanted their cheap little house back to turn it into lodgings for flight attendants. Tina and Michel decided to make a deal. Rather than accept alternative accommodation, they asked whether they could use some municipal land and put a second bus on it. The city let them use a plot in the Malagnou section. Soon, real-estate developers started ogling that plot, so they moved to a new place lent by friends, and then when the developers reappeared again, like locusts in neckties, these urban nomads moved again. And again… Each time they came to a new spot, they cleared the grounds, planted gardens, created a paradisiacal human biotope. As the children grew, they added the rolling homes, long, simple structures that had been abandoned by workers or other similar nomads.Angels-06

Like many gentler flowers, the Cherpines location was long coveted by predators as easy prey. On May 15, 2011, after an acrimonious campaign, the people of Geneva voted to have this  rural section of Geneva rezoned for building. It may have been necessary, since the city’s growth needed to be accommodated. Overnight, the price of land exploded and the speculators moved in with deals that were tough to refuse. They offered local property-ownerss staggering sums for their plots. Tina had always maintained a friendly relationship with her landlord. She also kept the plot impeccable, beautifying it with a garden. At the time of the referendum, he was recovering from an operation. Tina visited him as to wish him well and was greeted by a vicious “When are you moving out?” Money talking.

It was time to pack again.

In the six years since the Cherpines were delivered to speculators, not a building has been built. Why should it? You can sit on fairly cheap land while the rest of the city squeezes into small and often dumpy apartments, and the price of the land will just go up. No investments needed, except for some taxes and a few good lawn mowers.  The misery of some, make the happiness of others, an old French saying goes. While Genevans waited for more apartments, Tina and Michel had to move. They found a place in the Lignon area. It is not as idyllic, but wherever Tina and Michel “drop anchor,” their space always radiates care, beauty, calm.

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January 2017. Outside it’s cold. The damp comes off the river Rhone nearby, it’s like the Erlkönig’s voice. We sit in the warmth generated by the wood stove and talk about the next puppet show. The city is cutting back on funding for artistic pursuits, maybe the deficits will come down, but while economic woes can be corrected, cultural poverty is a downward spiral that eats at the foundations of human society. There is some anger in her voice at the way the world is becoming increasingly polarized. She notes the neighborhood, young people who have chosen to live in their campers to save money, not necessarily idealists. They go to work like everyone else. Then there are the punks, who, she notes, are developing self-sufficiency and engaging in different crafts.

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And there is the ever-lengthening past she speaks of as if it was the present. That is the gift of nomads, and it is their essential melancholy. They carry their entire lives in their baggage, in their minds, in their souls, in their homes, tents, on the backs of their camels and horses, or in their old vehicles. Those of us who have moved around a great deal know the value of human beings, of other people and peoples. Our consumer society demands that we fill cellars and attics and try to be reconcile ourselves with an unpredictable future. The nomad collects and keeps mostly weightless stuff around, thoughts, dreams, philosophies, ideas, and sanctifies human to human contact.

Michel sits beside her in the kitchen. His clear blue eyes are opened wide by overarched eyebrows; his look is a mixture of admiration, love, gratitude and amazement. He seems at peace. Those who knew the old Michel speak of his great intellect and ready conversation, his fast mind and love of life. Three years earlier, while packing the stage after a Christmas play, a massive heart attack struck him down. He recovered, essentially, but death’s had struck and its claws raked a part of his mind, taking his treasure of thoughts, his memories and many puppet adventures away forever. Today, he handles the puppets literally by heart, which was always his way. He is a man of the heart, friendly, resolute, creative and a touch mysterious, without being obscure.

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Dangerous angels in Geneva fire the imagination (with thanks to Hugh Schofield for kind permission)

Wherever Tina and Michel go, they are approached by acquaintances, friends, admirers. It’s more than just the attraction of the theater. It is the single-mindedness with which they lead their lives and their belief in the importance of the human creative impulse and the power of the individual. Michel came up with a clever, double-edged name for them, “des anges heureux,” (happy angels), which is almost a homonym for “dangeureux” (dangerous).

After our first interview, still in the Cherpines, she took me back to my car back. On the way, she showed me the lovingly tended garden. She is a long, lithe woman, with stunning poise. Her hair is always pulled back in two thin braids that reach almost to her knees. At 62, she moves with the grace of a ballet dancer, be that while walking through the market shopping, receiving gifts, or giving life to the puppets. And the rhythmic sound of a tabla, or djembe, a tombak or any other live percussion will set off a languorous swaying dance like that of a field of wheat caressed by a breeze. The beauty of her being radiates from an inextinguishable inner fire. At night a lighted candle always flickers near their home, “to signal that we are here, we are still burning,” she smiles. As I drove away in the luke-warm spring drizzle, I could see their home in the rear-view mirror and another quote of hers echoed in my ears:

“We are on wheels. When we go, we will leave no traces.”

The Geneva run

L’Escalade: the run of your life

In a confederate system as diverse as Switzerland, it is hardly surprising to find that Cantons and cities occasionally engage in very local celebrations that no one else has ever heard of. There is the Chalandamarz and the Pschuuri in the Grisons, or the Bloch at Mardi Gras in Appenzell. Not to be outdone (especially by its Germanic co-confederates) , Geneva has the “Escalade,” The Climb, which has evolved into one of the main participatory spectacles in town.

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Geneva is Geneva, of course, and stringent logic often seems absent from the organisation of local urban life, so the climb actually involves horizontal rather than upward mobility. Much of the event consists of people running, Marathon-like, through the city on the first Saturday in December or, if Saturday falls on the 11th, then on the second Saturday. In 2014, it was on Saturday December 6. The date, like the hare-brained configuration of the city’s public transportation, needs some clarification.

The event that spawned The Climb took place on a wintry night of 11-12 December 1602, the longest night of the year, since Genevans still used the old Julian calendar at the time. Duke Charles-Emmanuel I of Savoy had coveted the Calvinist city north of the Alps, and was hoping to force it back into the Catholic fold for religious, strategic and economic reasons. On that fateful night, a band of mercenaries managed to scale (escalader) the walls at around 2 a.m. When two sentinels ran into them, all hell broke loose. Reports say that civilians joined in, throwing heavy stuff out of windows, tables, chairs, barrels, stones, and real weapons like halberds.

The Genevans got the better of the attackers. They lost 18 men in the skirmish, 54 of the attackers were killed, 13 taken prisoner, tortured and executed. Ultimately Charles-Emmanuel signed a treaty with the city and peace was restored once and for all at the Treaty of St. Julien (a town just beyond the border in France).

Memories are made of this

A year later, the whole battle and its political setting were set to music to an epic ballad in 68 strophes in Provencal dialect, Cé qu’è lainô. The event was also immortalized in a poem, Genève delivrée, by Samuel Chappuzeau. In 1926, an association called Compagnie de 1602 started a parade to celebrate the victory. Participants come in gaudy period costumes; there are drummers, fife-players, weapons-bearers, a hangman and other period figures. Today, the parade, which is held on Sunday after the races, ends at the door of the Cathedral St. Pierre in the old town with speeches exalting the Republic, freedom, and so on.

The Escalade races were started in 1978. They now last almost all day, with participants broken down into different categories running set courses in a staggered schedule. Ages range from the “Poussins” and “Poussines” (literally chicks, boys and girls born in 2005-6) to Hommes VI or Femmes VI, men and women born before 1942. The length of the run goes from 1.8 km for the youngest runners, to 7.2 km for the older ones. This year drew 32,150 participants. All races begin and end in the Parc des Bastions right under the walls of the old town.The ladies' run

Walking and Nordic Walking have also been introduced for more comfortable sportspeople 10 years of age and above. The 8-km course begins in Veyrier and ends in the Parc des Bastion. The final race is the Course du Duc (the Duke’s Course) and is the toughest, naturally, since the Duke lost the battle: 17.5 km.

There are fees for the runners, and those running the longer itineraries will have to get medical certificates. For more details, please visit www.escalade.ch. The money paid goes to maintaining the costumes and organizing the events.

Marmite74 The final race on Saturday is simply called “Marmite”, or Cauldron and comes in two categories, youth and adult. The runners complete their nearly 3.5-km itinerary in crazy garb. There are no real winners here, but whoever comes first in this fantastical dash, will have their name and pictures published in the local paper, the Tribune de Genève (along with the serious runners).

What’s in a cauldron?

The chaudron is ubiquitous in Escalade season. Throughout the festivities, spectators and participants are regaled with vegetable soup cooked in great cauldrons sometimes on an open fire. It’s a very pleasant and fortifying dish in the damp and frigid days of early December. Escalade parties are held during this time to which children come disguised and singing a ditty that gives a blow-by-blow account of the “battle”. They will occasionally do something resembling trick-or-treating, i.e., knock on people’s door, sing that very same ditty, an request candy or coin. On one evening, children, parents and staff are invited to contribute vegetables to a big cauldron of soup, which is enjoyed usually with bread and some sweets.

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Eat your (marzipan) vegetables for the sake of the Republic

And for a few weeks prior to the Escalade, pastry shops, confectioners and supermarkets sell chocolate cauldrons decorated with the coat-of-arms of the city and filled with marzipan vegetables. The way to eat them is to break the cauldron with a stick or a knife while hollering valiantly: “Ainsi périssent les ennemis de la république!” (”Thus perish the enemies of the Republic!”)

Those raised on Asterix may get the wrong idea. The brave and independent Genevans did not beat back the Savoyards intruders by dint of a magic vegetable soup. Somewhere on the line a story emerged from the mists of history, that one Mère Royaume, living near the city gates was in her kitchen cooking a cauldron of vegetable and rice soup. Hearing the enemy in the streets, she carried the heavy pot to the window and heaved it onto the hapless invaders.

Mère Royaume was a real person. She was Catherine Cheynel, born in Lyon. She and her second husband, a maker of tin pots, were Protestants and escaped to Geneva soon after the massacre of St. Bartholomew (August 1572). By 1602, she was 60 years of age and had given birth to 14 children, few of whom had survived. The idea of her dumping hot soup on an enemy apparently comes from Verse 29 of the epic Cé qu’è lainô mentioned above. But history has many such modest heroes, like the women of Eger in Hungary who threw boiling fat on the attacking Turks.

Let them eat soup

As a journalist, I must wonder: What was she doing cooking vegetables soup at 2 a.m.? And would she, as a Protestant Genevan, waste food that way? Really? It is difficult to imagine. I suspect that on waking and hearing the ruckus, she grabbed the first thing at hand … under, or close to, her bed and hurled that out the window. So whosoever came up with the marmite idea has done us all a great service in Geneva. Imagine thousands of Genevans screaming: “Ainsi périssent les ennemies de la République!” while standing around steaming chamber pots.

Real or not, it’s a nice story, and it gets everyone out and about eating healthy soups. In an interview with Le Temps in 2009,  Catherine Santschi, state archivist pointed out a more reasonable explanation for the victory, one that has repercussions to this day: “It wasn’t Mère Royaume and her cauldron of soup that protected Geneva, but rather the fact that the citizens kept their weapons at home. They woke up in the middle of the night and were able to fight right away. If they had had to go to the arsenal first, the battle would have ended differently.”

Whatever the history, Geneva loves its Escalade, and for good reason. It’s a heart-warming, belly-filling feast, with so many parties, no one has to have a bad conscience for having fun. People from all walks of life have a chance to rub elbows in a congenial atmosphere. In some ways, too, it celebrates the victory over Catholicism in what was then a strictly Protestant-Calvinistic city. Paradoxically, it now serves to conveniently condense and celebrate Carnival, St. Nicholas and other religious/profane festivities that Calvin and his dour and sour successors had wiped off the calendar.

Memories from another world

Part I: East Germany

(The Iron Curtain held the world hostage on both sides of the infamous border for decades. For the Germans, the hostage situation was a little different because entire families were divided — as are Korean families, I understand. Many Westerners also experienced the East Bloc and were horrified or fascinated or both. My own experiences were mostly in East Germany and Hungary in the late 80s. The following is a series of memories and comments on the situation back through my own eyes both as a journalist and as a plain citizen visiting my then wife’s family. It is important to be detailed and clear, because this is my tiny contribution to the subject I once studied: History. My only tiny feeling of personal pride was having seen early on that the curtain would break open soon (after my first trip in ’86) and that the break would come in Hungary. No editor at the time was interested, the comment was “too speculative.” One East German colleague I met in Budapest thought I was nuts. I was happy to publish one little piece in the Boston Globe, finally, on November 9, 2009.

I will publish this in several installments and at some time in the future will add some photographs from my own collection (it is in storage far away), so please feel free to check back or subscribe.

Final crossings

On November 13, 1989, I entered East Germany illegally and in full knowledge of what I was doing. It happened on the Glienicker Brücke that connected East and West Berlin over the Havel river. This pretty little cantilever bridge was a neural spot between the then moribund East Bloc and the preening Western Democracies, an almost legendary construction that had been used for spy exchanges between East and West. It was a crisp, cold day, almost blinding. My visa for the German Democratic Republic, GDR, had just been stamped out by a curt border guard who had informed me that in order to return, I needed a new visa. “But I left my belongings in the hotel in Potsdam,” I stated politely. “Well, you’ll have to get a new visa,” he said with finality, punctuating a visible disinterest in an American citizen by turning to the next fellow in a fairly long line of people wanting to cross the bridge.

Glienickerbrücke-Source unknown

I set off as in a daze, my mind crunching the possibilities available to me to get my belongings back and, above all, to complete my job, which was perfectly unpolitical: I was writing an article on the particular baroque style of Frederic the Great of Prussia, whose palaces at that point in time stood on either side of the Wall: Sanssouci in Potsdam, Charlottenburg in West Berlin, with a number of other architectural testaments spread liberally around the area. My mother, Karen Radkai, was doing the photography. It was one of the few times we worked together — alas, for she was a terrific person to work with — and we were freelancing. House & Garden, where she published often, had registered interest in purchasing the article.

A lot has been forgotten over the past decades, a lot has been buried under the more egregious or absurd aspects of the East Bloc in general and East Germany in particular, the Orwellian control mechanisms in place, the prisons, the shoddy manufacturing (not all of it), the inefficient economy, the drab housing. In addition to all the spying, including preposterous attempts to gather people’s odors, the system had generated a few very pedestrian inconveniences. For one, if you wanted a visa as a westerner, for instance, you had to apply at least a month ahead of time and you had to know exactly where you were going to go and when, since the authorities, obsessed as they were with control, did not really take to spontaneous travel. Secondly, to phone the GDR from the West, you needed a healthy dialing finger, plus about a day’s worth of time. A special operator would register your call early in the morning and then connect you at some time during the day, it could be three, eight, or ten hours later. You just waited and waved away any other incoming calls (this was before all the sexy communication systems we have today).

That is the information that shot through my mind as I sauntered towards West Berlin on the Glienicker Bridge. That, and my rather innocent mother and her assistant wandering around Potsdam enjoying the somewhat dreary sights. Even though I had warned her this might happen, as a native German from the unified country, she simply could not conceive that there was this long, spooky, insurmountable wall cutting Germany and the world in two. So I did something inconceivable: I stopped before reaching the West Berlin side of the bridge, turned around and started walking back, trying to look as casual as a 6’3” man with a mop of unruly blond hair and wearing a trench coat (finest spy garb…) might be able to. A pebble on the beach and all that. There was not that much traffic, and what there was, was coming toward me from the east. In my peripheral vision, I caught the border guard dealing with someone’s papers, and I willed him to keep looking away from me at whatever he was doing. “I’m just a little grey mouse, as grey as the tar,” I mantraed to myself, heart beating like a loose wheel on a roller coaster. … I passed under a small East German banner. And suddenly, like a baby out of the womb, I was reborn in the GDR. But without a visa.

As I mentioned above, I knew what I was doing. I had found out the day before that I only had a one-time visa, care of an East German misunderstanding. But in those heady days after the now famous announcement by Günther Schabowski, I could not believe it, even though the opening of the border was only one way at the time, from east to west – and West Berliners were still not permitted to cross the border. And secretly, I did want to beat that bizarre system just once. I guess everyone did at some point, some with more risk than others. My own risk would have probably been a few hours at the custom’s house or police station. Some people I knew risked more. And I hope to unveil some of their stories in the following narrative. They are not the prominent folk, people whose quotes are famous and repeated like gospel. They are just everyday people with their struggles and tribulations. East Germany Part II continues…

Fahrenheit 2009 Part II: Digital Debate

 

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Michael Jackson and Countess Donhöff at eye level

The Fair is business, but it is also a celebration of the convergence two creative impulses, that of the book printers and designers, and that of the authors themselves. A children’s book by a South Korean authoress catches my eye, a tale about a girl with a fox on her head. A simple tale, not trying to be funny, just delightfully illustrated. Non-book articles are also a source of genuine creativity, but Hall 4.0 is just out of my two-day range, so I can only gaze briefly. The business of bookselling, too, requires genuine skill. Many publishers still have the courage and backbone to do less popular projects, Michael Jackson thus finds a spot next to a bio of Hitler-opponent Countess Marion Donhöff (biographies are big anyway, I suspect we are always curious about what other people are doing). On that score, the Book Fair never seems to change. But each year, it has a few big issues to confront

Off the books: liber digitalis 

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Enthusiastic lip service about iPhone cookbooks

The big buzz, of course, is the inexorable progress of the digital soldier ants through the old, old market structures of the printing industry. Its all about  eBooks, iBooks, Web-based books and Internet-based business models, and the biggest elephant in the room: the Kindle, born on the 19th of October. A small amount of space, about 2000 square feet (about 200 square meters)  is devoted to “Books & Bytes.” It exhibits several possibilities for reading electronic books, but none yet really replicate “the book feeling.” You can’t thumb pages quickly (yet), or find a page serendipitously. And if they fall over the side of a bed, for example, they may well break. Vodafone is promising to send end-users novels on their mobile phones (I’ll try and then report), and three experts in the field of cooking – there we go again – discussed the sheer brilliance of having recipes with great pics beamed to your iPhone. “You can take it along with you when shopping…”  one of them says. Next innovation down this line: the plastic cover to protect the device from spatter. Whatever: I suspect that next year, Amazon and Google, once odd fellows, now giant players, will probably own half of Hall 3.0… And watch for the next development promised by the Wi-Fi Alliance (Intel, Apple, Cisco are the main culprits) from Silicon Valley: Wi-Fi Direct. This system will, if I understand it correctly, piggyback Wi-Fi from one enabled device to the other, no need for Bluetooth, no need for Wi-Fi in some cases, no fuss, no muss, and a lot of electronic garbage from the last generation of innovative junk.

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Those pesky hardcopy books

 All this e-stuff naturally raises the hackles of more traditional folk. Philosophers, perhaps, should start getting involved, but they are too busy these days eking out a living as taxi drivers, key account managers, down-and-out editors and business gurus. The authors’ societies (and hence the authors and rights holders) are justifiably worried. Google’s book digitizing project is quite controversial… The Fair edition of The Bookseller has an interview with Tom Turvey, director of strategic partnerships at Google, regarding the pending Book Settlement. He is naturally eager for rights holders to sign into the Google library – and admittedly there are some who believe firmly that Google is acting as the world’s e-brarian out of pure altruism, just as there are those who believe that Windows Vista is an improvement over XP.  “Rights holders are obviously free to make whatever decision they wish,” says Turvey (thank you master!). “We believe the public benefits when rights holders have the choice to participate or not in its (the Settlement’s) terms and there is competition in the digital book space.” Right. The question is, what happens to the rights holders who decide not to cast in their lot with Google. Turvey is not clear about that, but he does have a very nice smile on his face. He must be a nice man. And he works in the upper echelons of a company with a very cute name.

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Future libraries for the digi-incrowd

 

The hellish vision: A digital content aggregator puts together novels and fact books that can be downloaded onto books with Wii-like pages that replicate turning. No fuss, no muss with those greedy authors, sourpuss editors, bean-counting lawyers  and grumpy literary critics. The lovers of real books will simply become the savages in the year X of Our Google. And that is the point made by Dr. Christian Sprang, legal adviser at the Stock Exchange Association of the German Book Trade at a debate on the thrid day of the Fair. He wants rights holders to have an opt-in option, not just the opt-out one. And Professor Roland Reuss simply says Google has broken the law by digitizing books without permission.

Interlude

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Joseph E. Hanhart, still in the savannah of real print

Niches.  The last refuge of the real book in the future? The Book Fair is full of them, and some still smell of printer’s ink, of hot presses, of red wine and even a touch of sulphur. Meet Joseph E. Hanhart of Editions Heuwinkel from Carouge (by Geneva), Switzerland. His bright blue eyes are full of humor, he still holds books in a firm yet loving manner. He publishes art books in varying sizes, each done with great care. The program also includes books on yoga and on Switzerland. He feels the market does need the diversity and he is optimistic. “In nature, you have brush and you have tall, visible trees,” he points out, “and without the grasses, the weeds and all that stuff, those tall trees could not survive.” But nature and human nature are two different shoes as they say in German.  We will eat up our entire planet, suck out its entrails and raze its forests just to get hamburgers cheaply and fuel to run our cars.

And so we get onto talking about bigger things. Hanhart is a genial storyteller in at least three languages. He suddenly mentions the 450th anniversary of the University of Geneva, which was founded by Calvin. One of the speakers was Stephen Hawking. Someone in the audience asked what god was doing before his seven days of heavy labor. “Preparing hell for the likes of you,” answered Hawking. Asymmetrical juxtapositions replacing dialectics.

 

Please check Part III: Chinese Checkers

Frankfurt Bookfair: Fahrenheit 2009

Bookfir-reder

Strange quirk of fate. Bookish people are usually typed as barely noticeable, mousy folk, shrinking violets, wall flowers, and even worms. Yet they are eminently visible in Germany especially around the time of the Frankfurt Book Fair. On the train up to the city of banks, there were at least three in the compartment I boarded. One, a tall man, bald with very techno-specs, perhaps business something-or other. He had a luggage dolly the size of a small forklift with thick tyres. I took a seat at a table with, opposite me, an editor slaving away on some manuscripts in Spanish and French and a facial expression that said “Don’t talk to me.”  But we did end up conversing in a strange manner. We talked about the business of publishing, the eminent threat of eBooks Trade fair tower in Frankfurtand iPhones and other toys and the problems we encountered. Hers seemed to be vaguely related to too much work. Mine with editors not bothering to answer their emails. “We are overworked, I sometimes don’t even open my mails, there are so many,” she retorted, tersely. Well, I think, how much would it cost to hire someone to do it, lord knows, there are enough intelligent and capable people out of work right now. But instead, I point out that Hermann Hesse, besides all the novels and stories and poems, also wrote 35,000 letters on an old black typewriter. She looks at me: “I hate Hesse,” she says, and ends the conversation by staring intently at her manuscripts.

Ten years since I was at the Book Fair, and my 5th visit in all. It remains the awesome orgy of the publishing industry, though there is a slightly melancholy air to it. Unless you hit the aisles with the esotericists, the politicals, the cooks. At my last visit, over 8,500 companies were there with their wares, some of the booths exuded the swirling energy of a Viennese waltz.  But this year, the number of exhibitors was 6,936, while the number of titles was around 401,000, and there was quite enough space to move around in the great halls, a sign of serious slowing down. Many exhibitors mentioned this, hoping  for more traffic during the weekend, when the fair is opened to the general public. I suspect they let in school classes on day 2 just  to cook the books. An awful lot of people wearing ratty backpacks and too young and smiling to be editors, publishers, agents  or journalists were stalling traffic in the aisles.

 Expeditions

The booths come in all sizes, from single-author 1-square-meter cubby holes,  to somewhat bombastic installations with full-fledged catering. Some have sofas, others little bistro tables decked out with cookies. Posters are everywhere, the biggest ones are devoted to the surefire hits, like the newest Dan Brown novel in German translation, which I will not read, having had to abandon both the Da Vinci Code and some book with a title involving the word digital because it read like something written by a bored high school kid.  I saunter through the publisher’s hall where the Anglo-Saxons are located with their especially beautiful coffee table books and a plethora of children’s books. I read about a dragon who is too hot he can make toast. I find little books that can float and others that open up into 3D scenes. Some make music. One publisher produces books shaped like basketballs and footballs. Several booths are offering clip-on book lights. I manage to convince one marketing manageress to let me have the last copy of a certain book in a series that my daughter adores.

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Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the biggest figure in German lit crit

At the Press Center, Hoffman & Campe’s Günter Berg opened the ceremonies with a major coup: 89-year-old Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany’s one-man supreme court for literary decisions – who last year shocked the country by refusing a prize from the TV industry – is talking about the value of the old classics. He originally launched a series with the works of  Kafka, Lessing, Kleist, Heine, Büchner and Schiller with Suhrkamp, but after a disagreement with the editor there, he took his ideas to H&C (except Schiller, which remained. Reich-Ranicki is sparing in his words, like someone who has returned to the basics after a lifetime of complexity. Readers will be astonished what they will find in those classics. Goethe is not on his list, because he cannot be categorized. As for the Nobel Prize winner, laconically he confesses he has not read her works, so it’s no comment from him. He seems very tired and as always, slightly bored. Hardly astonishing considering his own biography.

Leon de Winter at discussing his work in public
Leon de Winter discussing his work

I go out and begin looking around for Herta Müller’s works, for a large, distinctive poster, for some lights and joy and celebration. There is none. I stumble across new novels that seem to be inspired from the pains of mid-life crises. There are sensationalist books about the crisis and the naughtiness of bankers, books with big red titles that promise the world and deliver steam. I come across author and commentator Leon de Winter mentioning the gradual separation of US Jews and the Israeli Jews, whom he describes as “warriors”. This all has to do with his vocal opposition to multiculturalism, surely, but it sounds like preening. He is sitting on the stage of the Frankfurter Allgemeine, which is staunchly conservative.   I wander off, and a few minutes later, a young, very thin woman hands me a tiny book with excerpts from an erotic novel about some killer who has sex with her victims. Three sentences into the hormonal brew is enough to convince me that this is more emetic than erotic. Speaking of which: Cookbooks are ubiquitous. Many publishers seem to have them as a kind of security line. I find a woman is cutting prosciutto at one booth, Schinken (ham) in German refers to a big book… It’s meant to be funny, I guess, but she is not laughing.

 

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Cookbooks

 

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The ham-cutter

 

Many booths are devoted to spiritual topics − entire stands are concerned with every religion under the sun − many to family life.  A cursory glance down any of the aisles reveals a plethora of gimmicky books, how-tos, silly books for depositing near the toilet, biographies of personalities who should never have come that far, but did thanks to heavens knows what. Books devopted to serious music, pop anthologies, books for listening, tchotchkes of all sorts. And there are the serious novels and old standards. Quite a lot of material by and about women, gender balance, gender imbalance, gender and business… And suddenly, I find a shelf filled with a book about a dad in his middle age dealing with the ups and downs of family life, the contrasts, taking down the garbage one minute and having to morph into a fiery lover the next…  This could be interesting. I browse, noting that the writing is in short, grumpy sentences, which is like reading the mind-numbing signs on a passing freight train. Whoever wrote this has spent too much time listening to techno with ear buds. Bolder print suddenly suggests that you are not a man if you haven’t killed, skinned and cooked an animal. This is Hollywood “bildungs-cinema” at its worst, a slightly milder form of those bizarre, repetitive Vietnam flicks like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, where some guy has to discover the meaning of life by doing war against hordes of anonymous foreigners (of darker skin). I imagine the author with a fake Japanese gangster tattoo and an earring. Oh, well.

Please visit part II: Digital Debate

Sailing Past

Waiting in a billowing sea
Waiting in a billowing sea

 Sailing Past

Life can be quite unpredictable. One minute, Robert Watt, 31, a world-class bagpiper from Northern Ireland,was at a festival in Switzerland entertaining the crowds. A few days later he was standing on the bow of a century-old sailing yacht a quarter-mile off the coast near Monaco playing Scotland the Brave into a grayish sky. Had the ghost of a Scottish sailor been haunting the Mediterranean that afternoon, he would have no doubt wondered if he hadn’t imbibed too much single malt before heading down the Low Road. For there, on the mellifluous, deep-blue sea, was not one, but rather an entire armada of venerable old sailing yachts interspersed with vintage Riva and Craft speedboats, their gas-guzzling V-8 engines gurgling happily in the water.

Rivas -- elegance without aggression
Rivas ready to pounce

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Signora del Vento on course

From September 16-20, while the media was still busy figuring out where the financial markets’ liquidity has gone to, Monaco, a hub of international finance and individuals in high income brackets, was turning its attention to the joys of its bi-annual ritual, the Monaco Classic Week.  This is not merely an ostentatious exhibition of lucre, filthy or otherwise.  It is a meeting of serious sailors and fans of classic motor yachts, schooners, gaff-cutters, ketches and other sail yachts, and classic speed boats, as well. Some famous vessels were on display, such as the Pen Duick, the first vessel owned by the late solo Atlantic crosser Eric Tabarly, and the Eleonora, an exact replica of the Westward, a racing schooner built in 1910.  They were joined by training ships, like the Russian steel-hull windjammer Sedov, which once hauled grain and coal across the Atlantic under German flag, or the three mast Italian Signora del Vento, built in Poland in 1962. Another Italian bark was also in port, the Palinuro. Continue reading “Sailing Past”