Easter Meditation

Easter doesn’t end with the egg-search on Sunday. It goes on for at least another week, and so it should, otherwise, why bother? Here some stuff that has been going through my mind for several years. Now it’s on “paper,” I can let go a bit. Have fun and tell me what you think.

It’s no surprise that the Guardian gatekeepers should have chosen Easter Monday to publish an article about the drip-drip-drip decline of religion in the USA (‘Allergic reaction to US religious right’ fueling decline of religion, experts say, April 5, 2021). The high holidays are a perfect time to draw attention to what one might call a “crisis of faith” brought about by a society that is increasingly secular and unwilling to believe in space-based teapots. To quote Bertrand Russell, who is the progenitor of that wonderful analogy: “If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.”

The article, however, does not dwell on any deep epistemological issues, like critical rationalism, empiricism, and the like. Rather, it points to the drift in the USA towards Christian nationalism and bigotry in religious communities as the source of the “allergy” to religion amongst younger generations.

A sentiment that is becoming quite widespread.

Nor does it really mention the glaring contradictions between the leaders preaching water, but drinking wine, living in million-dollar mansions and flying around in private jets from one gawdy show of some stooge being cured of a fake illness or condition, to a revival filled with shouts and shrieks rapped in tongues.

Above all, their embarrassing support of Trump was a gamble, and a bad one. “They are experiencing their loss of prominence in American culture as an unacceptable attack on their beliefs,” says Alison Gill, vice-president for legal and policy at American Atheists, “and this is driving much of the efforts we are seeing to cling on to power, undermine democracy, and fight for ‘religious freedom’ protections that apply only to them.”

It could be called a form of communal reactance. As evidence mounts that would contradict or certain orthodox beliefs (shibboleths) or traditions, a part of the community will inevitably double down and become fundamentalist,  even fanatical. While striving for greater  spirituality, they are in fact becoming classically materialist, since every word in the  Good Book is to be considered true as written, scholars and interpreters be damned.

A different look

For years, now, Christian leaders of many denominations have branded  secular humanists, atheists, drugs, Democrats, Communists, liberals, sex and rock ‘n’ roll, and other phantasms as the culprits in their dwindling flocks. They rarely examine their own role in the matter. They have a convenient  scapegoat for that, a fellow named Satan, whose origins were brilliantly explored by theologian Elaine Pagels (The Origins of Satan). Any attempts at modernizing the religion are met with a sturdy wall of resistance. Hans Küng, who died on April 6, suggested, among other things, ending celibacy for the priesthood. He was prohibited from teaching! A few years ago, the German Bishops’ Conference also proposed letting women be ordained (please!), and that was ignored. Meanwhile, the church is hemorrhaging cash due to sex scandals involving priests and their superiors.

The famous fig leaf…. covers more than just sexual organs.

Crises, be they of faith, or in one’s marriage, or when deciding what to wear to a party, are usually a sign that something needs changing. And people with questions about their lives will seek guidance. But one thing is certain, young and old don’t want to be yelled at all the time and threatened with eternal hell. Life is stressful enough as is, what with our daily duty to maintain the economic well-being of the collective. People want their religion to make sense in their daily lives today. Not two thousand  years ago.  It would therefore behoove churches to adapt their messaging and attitude to The People, if they want to survive, and not try to convince the people to follow their theology.  This was concisely expressed in a recent interview in  Die Zeit  with a young, Catholic, queer theology student, Chiara Battaglia, suggests that young people are naturally losing interest in the church (Catholic in this case). “We are so varied in how we are designing our lives, we can make up a patchwork of the best from all religions, we are experiencing spirituality without a church.”

Yet, the solution is simple. The first step for the church (and I am speaking for the Catholic church, but not only), would be to embrace the changes in our society and get back its overarching spiritual message, one shared by most religions, rather than cling to some old, orthodox, materialistic concepts that were always rooted in the maintenance of power. Because the spirituality is still homeopathically present, notably in such rituals as Christmas and Easter.

Search for meaning
Besides economic activity, these holidays offer us a moment of respite in a frenetic social environment. Secondly, we tend to need rituals, because they give both the physical and metaphysical structure to our lives, be that daily, weekly, or annually.

All the better if the ritual in question has a deeper meaning. Like Easter. It comes at after forty days of fasting, for forty days plus six Sundays at the end of winter and beginning of spring. This was a smart idea at one time, since food reserves in our climes could otherwise run out. In our day and age, in the West, our worries are often too much (rather than too little) consumption of unhealthy stuff, be it nicotine or other drugs. But it can also be other bad habits, like doomscrolling, the constant ingestion of divisive, polarizing, and strictly absurd content from the Internet. Even cat videos.

Nothing like the desert to spawn new thoughts and visions. And to reveal our shadow.

And so we want change. The idea of making a conscious, daily effort to enact that change is encouraged and sustained by fasting and by having a mentor. The ideal mentor during Lent is the none other than Jesus Christ who went into the desert after being baptized (he saw the light) by John. There, he was surrounded by wild beasts and thrice got tempted by the Devil himself.

Another narrative

The Christian calendar ends this period with the holy week, which according to Arnold Bittlinger, a theologian and Jungian psychologist (Das Geheimnis der Christlichen Feste) leans heavily on the Roman celebration of weekdays, not a bad I idea when trying to graft one theology onto another. It begins with Palm Sunday and the triumphant entry into Jerusalem of the “Conscious I,” the visible world with all its hidden phoniness. It is followed by Holy Monday (lundi -> luna -> moon), in which the unconscious is at work to reveal the truth known to the soul: Jesus withers the fig tree, whose leaves were always used to hide sinful stuff (Genesis 3,7). He also clears the temple of the money changers to restore its spiritual value. In other words, that what the fasting churned up can now be uncovered, and it will inevitably force a conflict, which comes the following day. On Tuesday, the day of Mars for the Romans (Mars, god of visible conflict), Jesus “locks horns with his opponents,” writes Bittlinger. “He destroys his relationship with all representatives of the Jewish people and religion … he delivers a violent end-of-times speech.”

Profound change can mean putting paid to all those who were part of your entourage, to old habits. It must be done with some “violence,” meaning: it must be spoken. The two aspects of Mercury, generosity and pettiness/dishonesty, are observed on Wednesday (mercredi), when the apostles – spurred by Judas – complain about the precious spikenard ointment poured on Jesus’ head. On the day of Jupiter, the god of abundance, Thursday, Jesus gets together with his apostles, and on Friday, we have the day of Venus, goddess of love and, Bittlinger points out, of the cycle of death and rebirth, for she is the evening star when the moon is waxing, and as the morning star when the moon is waning. Death is the essence of change, and while we are in a process, we will feel lonely (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”). And at some point, you will have to let go and simply trust: Into your hands I commit my spirit!”

Jesus, our higher or true self, and the twelve apostles, our quotidian self: part of a single organism.

Finally, we have the day of Saturn, the “Guardian of the Threshold,” the symbol of limitations, such as a cave, where Jesus is placed after death.” Saturn, the Roman version of Kronos, also represents hard, persistent work that will bring just rewards. Namely a new beginning, resurrection.

Most of us can relate to this process, even to some of its joys and tribulations. We want change, yet we fear it. The stories told of Jesus can help us objectify the process and make it more understandable. The cycle of life and death, or of creation and transformation, is explained by creating a grand story around it (Brahman, Vishnu, Shiva). It is true in the macro as well as in the micro.

Of course, one could be ultra-scientific about change and set forth the minutiae of molecular structures, the sparking neurons, the flapping dendrites and fascinating quantum leaps in our brains. But at times, a good yarn manages to paint a bigger picture in a more exciting manner, and in a way that everyone can understand more viscerally.

Something to think about

One more point needs elucidating. As in a dream, all the figures are in atomized parts of a single figure. Jesus, an androgynous figure, is the “higher self,” the one who knows the roadmap to the future, while his apostles do not. They are living and working in the three-dimensional world, but they must learn to trust their “crazy friend.” So what is Judas doing there, and why did Jesus love him in particular, knowing he would betray him? Because often t

Rehabilitating Judas, the “infamous” apostle. We despise that part of us that will force the process, and yet we need it.

he changes in our lives, be they experienced as positive or negative, are actually brought about by an action we took, or did not take. Without Judas, Jesus would have remained just another soap-box hero.

 

And by the way…. Remember the three temptations of Christ in the desert…. That devil is a part of us. We make the choices. At least most of them.

Aftermath

Holy week and resurrection are not the end of the story. Easter week follows and has Jesus wandering around a bit and testing his new enlightened self. How natural! Isn’t that what we all do, when we have managed to transform something in our lives, when we have come through the crisis? A victory lap to test our new self?

Hanging on for dear life to tradition, i.e., fundamentalism, is a natural response to some change, but perhaps not the right one. The fire and brimstone and the endless harping on about sex, sexuality and snakes and the devil simply does not make much sense anymore in the age of advanced medicine, condoms, psychology, freedom of speech, books, the Internet’s freewheeling culture of criticism. Maybe it’s time to make religion a personal story again. Self-development has become a veritable industry that taps into many different health-related fields. If it has such success, it’s because in a disjointed, hectic world, with its myriad distractions and bullshit jobs, there’s a clear need to “find oneself.” It would be a shame to waste such terrific stories like that of Easter by pretending they are based on some real, three-dimensional, historic reality for which there is very little evidence, if any at all. These stories are universal, they are instructive, they are exciting, and they often explain and encourage our inner processes and help us become better humans.

God (or my higher power), grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference
R. Neihbuhr.

 

 

Lockdown in the rear-view mirror

We’ve become used to economic crises, since they are endemic to our system. And some of us might remember the oil crises of the ‘70s (from which we learned very little) and the brown-outs and black-outs, and the rocketing fuel costs. But the past year delivered a crisis several generations of westerners simply haven’t experienced. Here’s a brief look back at the first months and my experience with remote teaching.

In Switzerland, the state of emergency triggering the lockdown was announced on Friday, March 13. It had been expected. A few weeks earlier, the first cases of covid-19 had appeared in Switzerland (in Ticino), so the Federal Council gradually prohibited  gatherings of more than 1,000 people, then 100, then less. That put paid to the big trade fairs, like the Salon de l’Auto in Geneva, Baselworld (watches and jewelry) and traditional events like the Fat Tuesday revelry in Basel. It was obvious that schools would have to shut down as well. Two weeks prior, in my school, we had discussed the skiing week and whether it would be possible. Some thought, yes. The thought fizzled. Hope still remained for the school outing at the end of the year… Then the axe fell.

As a substitute teacher now with long-term contract, I was in charge of a class of eighteen teenagers in their last year before entering the equivalent of high school. At first, they were thrilled not to have to go to school. Some were a little worried about their grades, which they hoped to improve in the third term that had just started. Some were already eying a professional path and were worried about it being in jeopardy. My co-main-teacher and I had a special duties towards them: Throughout the school year, we were asked to prepare them for the working life, showing them the many possibilities of achieving their dream or, if at all possible, finding that dream.

Leaving the schoolhouse on that Friday had a mystical feeling to it. There was no drama, no suggestive music, no worries. Just a deafening silence. The airport, which is about 500 yards from the school as the crow flies, had fallen silent, and the air had a whiff of spring unadulterated by the usual scent of burning kerosene.

The empty classroom, March 16, 2020.

The following Monday morning, my co-teacher and I got the class together on WhatsApp for a little chat about how we would proceed. Our orders were to use the Gmail platform, which features “classrooms,” a meeting app, email, etc… But my colleague, far younger than I and a scientist, knew about gaming. SHe had the brilliant idea of setting up a server on the Discord platform, which is not only quite easy to use, but was also familiar to many of our students. That afternoon, I went to school for the last time to gather the books the students had left behind not thinking that the lockdown would happen, and to pick up our class plant.

Last year I wrote about this moment, which some suggested was like a vacation. “A vacation is planned, implemented, executed. It comes with “vacation stress,” the unwritten edict that says: “Thou shalt relax and be nice to everyone and not think of work.” Sheltering-in-place, on the other hand, is like having been on a demented carousel one moment, and being yanked off and cast into limbo the next.”

Revving up

From the start, we felt it was important for the kids to see the positive aspects of the situation. I sent around a few paragraphs explaining how the work environment of the future was demanding more independence from employees anyway (a concept called Work 4.0 that I had had to write about for a company, you can read about it here). The lockdown, I pointed out, would be excellent training in self-motivation, in getting things done, communicating properly, staying “with the team,” as it were. This is what freelancers do every day, anyway (see box below).

This little pep-talk, which I repeated several times during the lockdown, had an effect on some. One boy later recalled how hard it was to work for ten minutes in silence, without the noise of the class in the background (these were very chatty kids). They were given enough work to do for half a day. They received the work in one-week batches and could do the work  whenever they pleased, though as a teacher of English and German, I often asked them to be strict about doing a bit every day. Several learned to communicate their questions or problems in a timely fashion and to actually space out  out their work so as to make it doable, rather than wait for the last minute. Some, of course, disappeared and even calls to the parents couldn’t get them to their desks.

For a generation that has grown up with computers and online, their actual skills in this area were often sorely lacking. They could get pics onto Instagram within seconds, but the computer as a tool was in many cases beyond their abilities. It was time to learn by doing, which is probably the best way.

Back and forth

One key to our online teaching was communication. My colleague and I decided to have regular meetings on the platform. Meet (the app) was not a favorite, mostly, we suspected, because they valued their privacy and were probably sitting in bed in their PJs most of the day. So on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we had a conference call at 11.30 a.m. to listen to their questions and problems. Otherwise, they were free to contact us, and we would respond fairly quickly. At all hours, I might add. I remember one evening helping a student with her French reading, a chapter of a book she did not quite understand. So we worked on it together for nearly an hour. Several did their homework after 10 p.m., which is too late.  One morning early – 4:15 a.m., I am an early riser – I found two students chatting away online and had to convince them to get to bed.

Around the second week, I was contacted by a journalist from the Swiss Radio and Television, who wanted to know what was special about the lockdown, what experience people were having that was brand new. As an incurable optimist, I figured she would be interested to know something about the experience of teachers. And so I described how we, the adults, their teachers, had suddenly entered the world where they spent a lot of time. It was a great moment to share their experience, and to give them a bit of guidance in the utility and dangers of the Internet. It bred a sense of familiarity, too, because we were no longer physically present and applying the usual disciplinary methods. They would bicker and joke around just as they did in class, and occasionally we had to remind them that we were still their teachers. It revealed how vulnerable they could become when not seeing who is communicating with them. A physical voice can be very different from the words on a page.

The airport fell silent as well, a blessing for our noses and ears, and lungs, probably, as well

It was probably not a very interesting observation, because the journo was audibly checking messages on the other end and waiting desperately for me to finish my three or four descriptive sentences. I don’t think she even got my name right. That’s perhaps one of the problems with news media, they do need the spectacular to attract attention, and the subtle gets kicked to the curb.

Epilogue

This regimen lasted nearly two months. The kids would struggle a bit with the IT, somehow get the work back to me for corrections. We did one or two classes online with Meet to get some oral work done. Few showed up for these confabs. It was a bit of a struggle, but, in time, a number of the kids started getting a groove. Some even benefited from the occasional one-on-one classes. The bickering (my class had a few high-level bickerers), while irritating, suggested that they were still engaged with each other, and always offered opportunities for learning social manners.

We returned to school in half-classes on May 11. There were to be no exams, the final grades would be those at the end of the second term. The feedback on the nearly two months of online schooling was mixed. Most students in my class were happy to be back in physical contact with their friends. Even seeing their old teach seemed agreeable. The familiarity continued in the classroom, but as an adult and a teacher you have to keep a certain distance. We are not pals, we are not family. Many felt, too, that testing for grades was stressful and somewhat spoiled the fun of learning.  We discussed this issue, and I had to agree with them, but the problem remained in how to evaluate the kids. The idea of no grading is good, but it does need some preparation. The emphasis is on self-responsibility. What do you do with students who are simply different, whose experience has turned them against any organized society?

Soon, we were back at exploring the curriculum, but without the prize and coercion of grades. This held for another month or so. Then, the promise of summer, the balmy air, the brilliant colors, the the glimmering of freedom till September pried their teenage souls from the classroom, the reading, the maths, the grammar, the constraints. It was time to let them go. My colleague and I organized a picknick after the official end of school. Eleven came.

Those I have seen since are doing well.

In the end, the students who already worked well in class, were also the ones who managed the online learning as well. A few did go AWOL. The parents might have helped, but they, too, were probably too taxed by the situation, though some failed to give their children the proper aural space to work in (in one case, I heard a dad speaking loudly into his phone, while his child was trying to read).

The pandemic is over a year old, now, and people are getting sick of it, while many are still getting sick from it.  But the virus doesn’t care whether or not you’re sick of its presence. This too shall pass, as they say, so me must deal with it. Young people are having a hard time with the lockdown. But hand-wringing, moaning or spouting ridiculous conspiracy theories is not particularly helpful. It behooves us adults to remain stable, supportive, encouraging. Remember the film La vita e bella? Roberto Benigni guides his young son through the trials and tribulations of a concentration camp as if it were a game? That may be where we should all be. In all crises, adults must remain adults, and that does not mean being a pill. It means maintaining your humor, your optimism, your reason. Moaning and groaning about the lockdown and cursing at things you cannot change is not adult. To quote Seneca: “Man is affected not by events but by the view he takes of them.”

The Box: (I wrote about this last year already : “First injunction, therefore, is to rein in time, set up a rhythm, and stick to it. Your health depends on good sleep, some exercise, and attention to nutrition. Excellence is habit, to paraphrase Aristotle, and it does apply to surviving confinements of all sorts. Chatty aside: I hear so many people, even friends, complaining about being at home in front of the computer, not seeing anyone during the lockdown… I’d like to say: Now you know what it feels like, welcome to my world!).

The world outside my window (Part 2)

Settling in, finding the rhythm, absorbing the shock, observing. This is even shorter than the last installment.

Sometimes the weather fits the mood, sometimes vice versa

The week started with weather as appropriate as “pandemic genre” film music. The sun remained hidden behind racing clouds driven by a violent wind that jostled the high rises moored to this part of the city. The bise noire is a Geneva specialty, an icy northeasterner that rips across the lake between the Alps and the Jura ranges. Normally, it brings sunny, but Calvinistically cold, weather. The “noire” version is different, it blankets the sky with menacing clouds that never seem to rain themselves out. It’s a little unnerving, because it raises images of an apocalypse, which is the general mood right now, even though the sun has returned.

The silence that engulfed the city a few weeks ago has started restoring our acoustic keenness. We hear other sounds with more acuity. A car accelerating, the voice of children in the garden, the Vespas that recall chainsaws in the forest. And in the background, ghosting along the larger avenues, is the spooky wail of ambulance sirens. They were always there, but now their fourth interval sings dan-ger, dan-ger…

Monday morning blues, add sirens.

We are waiting. Doing stuff, working, sometimes playing, and hopefully learning all sorts of soft, hard and medium rare skills in this brave new world. The web is full of clever activities, because given time, people are fantastically creative. The memes and fun clips are entertaining. There’s an Italian fellow playing football with a cat. Boredom, I always told my daughter, is the first step towards creativity. No wonder the powers-that-be would like to get us back to work, pronto. It’d be difficult to maintain the old economic system with a society filled with artists. A selection:

But you don’t have to go viral to defeat the virus. Staying home, doing nothing and reading is clever as well. Or practicing an instrument, or painting, or cooking, or just thinking. Maybe we will even shift the paradigm a little more, not towards technocracy (I’ll have a word about that in the next installment), but towards humanocracy. That guaranteed income idea could be gathering steam…

The virus is a great equalizer in many ways. It seems to be stimulating the kind of compassion to wipe away all the artificial barriers that have allowed us to see the “other.” The virus is an equal opportunity killer. It has taken to the shades: the pastor who was convinced it was a hoax, the “resister” who saw it coming, the doctor who spotted it early on, the bus driver, and children, adolescents, young women and men, in addition to the older people, whose lungs are not made for that kind of assault.

It reminds me of something: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself (Matthew 22:29). It has real meaning now, even in the midst of our silo-ized society, as Hermann Hesse once pointed out in his Lektüren für Minuten (Vol. 2), because you/we are now reflected in the other, and the other in you and us, and that irrespective of ethnicity, skin color, religious beliefs, if any.

The others are now your mirror.

Then there are those outside

So we, that is me and my global neighbors, wait at home, hope for the best, and like the human beings we are, we get creative, or neurotic, or, in worst cases, a little psychotic. We wait and create and work and hang out, keeping our spittle to ourselves. Outside the window, a medical army struggles to get a grip on the infections and the other accidents and illnesses that still plague us all, the garbage pick-up continues, postal workers, police, bus, tram, trolley, train and truck drivers keep doing their bit amidst a spreading pandemic. Families or relationships that experience abuse are very vulnerable. So be careful. Listen attentively.

Our ears are our first line of defense and theirs as well. A little vigilance can save lives.


(The next installment will look at work an the things that keep us sane).

The Collapse

The power of people

The sudden collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 followed shortly thereafter by the entire Iron Curtain came as no real surprise to me, and I was not alone. This is not some idle boast with 20/20 hindsight. For a couple of years prior already, the pressure had been mounting on this monolithic razor blade cutting the world in two. It was overly ripe for the fall.

No comment needed

I had been to East Germany several times, birthplace of my now ex-wife, and home to her huge tribe of relatives (her grandmother had married a widower with three children and had then had three of her own with him, who all, amazingly, survived World War Two, if I remember correctly). I had had long conversations with people there, read the local papers, which pretended that everything was fine and all bad things came from the West. Every encounter with an East German involved a liturgy of complaints about the absence of goods … not money. Things. One of my wife’s cousins couldn’t find a replacement car door, for example, because the Five-Year plan that had been agreed to around then didn’t include passenger doors for the Trabants that year. Another cried after seeing all the East-German wares like those blue polka-dotted Bürgl earthenware cups and the famous “smoke” figures from the Vogtland region  being sold at a Christmas market in Frankfurt on the Main in the west. Those goods were not available drüben, over there, at home, in East Germany

Checkpoint Charlie: a neural point in the world

Fulfilling shopping was not the only problem. A friend had been in the NVA (the National People’s Army) and reported driving around drunken officers all day in decrepit equipment. And you could see the degraded barracks, the quiet rejection of Russia and things Russian ­— most people dislike occupiers, regardless, so don’t think this was just “Communism.” People who grew up learning Russian in school hardly speak a word anymore or refuse to. At any rate, all of what I saw contradicted the apocalyptic vision of ultra-powerful Eastern Hordes often referenced in western media with glee and with proof by grainy black and white photos.

Most revealing, perhaps, was a simple conversation, during which I and my interlocutor compared east and west, a very frequent and prolific topic. I casually referred to where I lived as “back in Germany” (bei uns in Deutschland). She interrupted me: “This is also Germany.” In that instant, I realized that Bismarck’s claim that Germany would need a civil war once a century to stay united was no longer applicable. This was a unified country with an impenetrable and cruelly ridiculous border running through it. Impenetrable, but not permanent.

One just had to hope that a war would not be necessary to break down that wall…

A bubble was growing in East Germany, that was for sure, a quiet, unspectacular one. A bigger one was beginning to bulge elsewhere, however, namely Hungary, and thanks to my first book contract with APA Guides, I was able to drive there often as a Mr. Nice Guy writing about travel and culture, essentially harmless stuff for the over-political Communists…

The Hungarians had been chomping at the bit for a while already. Crippling foreign debt and palpable weariness at the leaden straitjacket imposed by a stuffy, unimaginative squad of corrupt apparatchiks was creating a kind of mental rebellion. Judging from the many essentially freedom-fighting idols who appeared  as statues, or on the bills, it would appear to anyone with a bit of a sense of observation, that Hungarians like their freedom, and they don’t like to be told what to do, and if that is the case, they tend to become ornery and uncooperative. Let me mention Kossuth, Deàk, Ràkoczi, the many poets  (Petöfi, Ady, Jozsef…), who are naturally inclined to free thinking, and of course Dozsa György, who led a massive peasant revolt against a corrupt aristocracy and died horribly, in 1514, along with many of his followers. A friend of mine, a simple seamstress out east, could recite the national poet Sàndor Petöfi’s famous “Talpra, Magyar” (On your feet, Magyars) that roused the Hungarians against the Austrians on March 15, 1848. From her mouth, it always sounded suspiciously contemporaneous, and very passionate.

Another snapshot: In August ’88, in a crowded csàrda near Tiszafüred on the Great Puszta, I had jokingly called the waitress “elvtàrs,” which means comrade. She yelled back at me for all to hear:  “The only thing red with me is my dress,” which was indeed red.

The Tisza between Hungary and Ukraine

My contacts in the country were all turning west. I crossed the border five times in ’88 without ever being searched. Unlike my crossings into East Germany, which never took less than three hours. I even wrote to editors in the USA (the big magazines, hoping to get The Scoop) that Hungary was almost out of the East Bloc and the Iron Curtain was now a flimsy, rusting reminder of past failures. I explained why I thought it would happen…. “Dear Mr. Radkai, that is all too speculative” was the standard response. The US media simply loved its cloak-and-daggery East Bloc, with its run-down buildings, barbed wire as a metaphor, the sinister cement posts, so dramatic when displayed in grainy black and white on the broadsheets.

It was not all lucubration. There was some action as well. For example, in late June ’88, a massive demonstration was held in Budapest against the systematization (modernization) project initiated by Ceaușescu in neighboring Romania, which would have seriously affected the majority Hungarians in Transylvania (the USA still considered Ceaușescu  one of the better guys in Eastern Europe).  After much sending out, the Berkshire Eagle picked up my report on it, bless their soul. A year later, June 16, 1989, with the Hungarian Democratic Forum as a kind of opposition pool, the country re-buried the “hero” of the 1956 rebellion, Imre Nagy, along with Pal Maléter, Miklos Gimes, Geza Losonczy and Jozsef Szilagyi. An empty coffin was added to represent the thousands of Hungarians who had also perished fighting off the Soviet army. It was a huge demo.


But lots more was happening. In May, guards were removed from the border, an open invitation to use Hungary as an escape route. Also, on June 27, Gyula Horn was at the western border to ceremoniously cut open the Iron Curtain (I have a piece of it). In August and September, East German refugees started entering the country, allegedly to go on vacation: Hungary had always been known as “the country for encounters”…. my ex-wife’s family would come to the Balaton in summers to meet their East German relatives. These vacationers now spawned a refugee crisis that ultimately forced the Hungarian government to do the right thing and let them emigrate westward. The trickle became a flood.

A friend of mine, Ingrid Heller, kept a diary of her escape with her two teenagers:

Budapest, August 23

We went straight to the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany. We hoped to get some assistance there. But the embassy was closed. All I could see was the locked gates, the bell, and the guard house and Hungarian sentinel. Four youths came up from behind and stormed the bell. As if it were a life saver, I thought. A member of the embassy staff came out and handed us some flyers through the gate. They pointed the way to the Church of the Holy Family in Zugliget district.

We headed to the church. The embassy had set up a kind of emergency space in a garage in back of the church. They were taking the applications for passports. We had hidden passport in the pages of books to avoid being noticed by the East German customs officers.

Then the East German “tourists” started collecting like the birds on Hitchcock’s jungle Jim at the West German embassy in Prag. And soon the Czechs had to relent and let them go.  The East Germans at home, meanwhile, were not totally passive. I remember hearing that people wanting to move from Dresden in ’86 were giving the reason as “lack of access to western television,” though I suspect that was apocryphal. But it referred to the fact that western TV signals did not reach the great city on the Elbe, which became known as the “Valley of the Know-Nothings” (Tal der Ahnungslosen).  In September ’89, they began to demonstrate, culminating in a huge march in Leipzig. The SED government had no cogent response, and repression was not an option, most probably because the USSR under Gorbachev was no longer prepared to back violence. So, whether leaving the country or marching in the streets, people were “voting with their feet,” was a popular saying.

The Wall falls

But in October ’89, I still had to order a visa to enter East Germany. I was planning an one of those cultural-lifestyle articles for a magazine, this time on Frederic the Great, who had palaces in what was now West Berlin and Potsdam in the East. My visa for multiple crossings was for November 12. So I reserved a train ticket from Munich to Berlin for Nov. 10, giving myself a few days to do research and visit friends in West Berlin – yes, my young readers, there were days when you could work at a human pace, read books, dig deeply into your subjects, and have a real social life with flesh and blood people… I then went back to my daily routines, writing scripts for the Deutsche Welle, reporting, preparing more guide books, and, of course, listening intently to short-wave radio, as was my wont.

On Thursday, November 9, 1989, I was packing and listening to the news in the evening. There came a really strange report from Dresden. Under pressure, Günther Schabowski, a party secretary, had just suggested that private citizens in East Germany could travel freely to West Germany. It was a somewhat confusing message, which directed people to get emigration visas as usual, and then stating, but permitting private travel abroad with short-term permissions (Die Genehmigungen warden kurzfristig erteilt). History has shown us how precarious the situation really was, even the NVA (the army) was mobilized later on, which could have produced an unbelievable bloodbath, but the East Germans heard it as permission to cross the border. And after some hesitation, they rushed it, notably in Berlin, while millions of West Germans sat riveted to their TV sets, glued to their radios and newspapers (the good ole days).

By the 10 p.m. news, it was clear that something apocalyptic was under way. East Germans were coming across the border without restrictions. And I stood in my living room listening, packing, mouth open, and  suddenly realized there were tears streaming down my face.

On November 10, I took the night train to Berlin. It slinked and slithered through East Germany, slowing down as it was supposed to, when passing stations on the way, but never stopping, giving us an almost eerie sight of dusky platforms crowded with East Germans wanting to just go, go, go. Because the second night was the real one. Until then, there was fear that the border would slam shut behind those taking tentative steps west. Or worse, the regime would suddenly crack down on the people who had exposed themselves in an explosion of euphoria.

Berlin in the morning. It was ice cold. But the sidewalks were bustling, the traffic dense notably with those strange East German cars, the Trabants and the Wartburgs, and the occasional Lada or Dacia (franchises of Fiat and Renault). I deposited by bags at the friends’ place where I was staying and soon joined the thousands of West Berliners and tourists gathered at the Wall. I found a spot not far from the Brandenburg Gate. Climbing onto it was forbidden. It was dangerous, because the other side was essentially a minefield. Many were trying to chip away at it, the so-called Mauerspechte, wall woodpeckers. That, too, was prohibited. In front of me, a Japanese fellow had showed up with a stonemason’s hammer, a huge chisel, gloves, and began whacking away. Bits of painted concrete flew in all directions, the wall shook. I picked up a few pieces. A mounty showed up, confiscated the man’s tool…

East Germans wandered through the city. You could hear them from their dialect. Many wanted bananas, even the KaDeWe had run out, that grandiose department store that was built just to thumb a consumerist nose at the goods-challenged East. I heard that an employee of the KaDeWe had gone into a cheap discounter’s to purchase more bananas … Lines in front of a sex shop… That, too, of course. The East was quite puritanical…

But was this real? It did not feel real at all. It felt more like some magical moment, and soon the Big Brothers would come and say: “OK, folks, party’s over.”…. That did not happen. The next day, a Sunday, I  headed to the Interior Ministry in East Berlin to get my visa. Two hours at Checkpoint Charlie. The Iron Curtain was open one-way only. I changed the statutory 25 deutschmarks for 25 ostmarks.

The ministry was in chaos. Journos running about, officials pale and wide-eyed, travelers wondering where to go, what to do …. I found the office I needed, got my visa and asked casually: Should I cross the city again, or can I circle the city and go to Potsdam directly…. I had reserved at the Cecilienhof, the famous hotel where Churchill, Truman and Stalin had met in July ’45… “Uh, no you have to go to Gleiwitz.” I didn’t look at my visa. Trudged back to the Checkpoint, bought some chocolate cake on the way for my friends in the west. Waited another two hours. By the time I got through, the cake was mostly eaten.

The rest of the story is available here on my blog (www.journos-blotter.com), and is quite strange, since I actually ended up in the eastern zone without a visa. In a nutshell: As it turned out, Gleiwitz was the autobahn crossing, and I had requested a train crossing because I was on foot. Secondly, my visa was not a multiple visa, as applied for, but a single crossing.

Let me just add this: When I reached Potsdam thanks to a kindly pensioner who picked me up on the breakdown lane of the autobahn —after changing another 25 deutschmarks into ostmarks — I asked a young woman for directions to the Cecilienhof. She told me, and then asked where I was from. “The USA,” I replied. She spontaneously hugged me and gave me a friendly kiss. It was quite a surprise. So I trudged, exhausted, towards my hotel. On the way I tried to get rid of all those eastern bills. I found an open book shop, and bought several classic novels, books of poetry, some philosophy. When that historically famous palace hotel appeared before me, a thought crossed my mind: The war is finally over, let the peace begin.

Epilog:

The Kohl government rushed to consolidate the openings and bridge the country’s division. The effort was boosted no doubt by the enormous good-will of people in Germany and abroad, the sheer sense of “Yes!” of optimism, of welcome for this new age of international understanding. The People had ultimately won. The bizarre Communist governments fell one after another, some in blood, like Romania, others just crumbled. In 1990, I covered the first elections in Hungary. The Communist Party was running. I spoke to their reps, and they smiled and said: “If we pass the 5% mark, we’ll be happy.” That would have meant at least representation in the parliament. They reached about 3% if I recall…

Yet, as the curtain fell, new walls went up in people’s minds. In Germany, the westerners got suspicious and snarky about the East Germans, especially the Saxons, whose dialect grated on their countrymen’s ears. The easterners created the “Besserwessi,” the western know-it-all ( a play on the word Besserwisser), a kind of carpetbagger, who came and seduced the womenfolk with charm and money (this strange hallucination is not confined to Germany, by the way, it’s something visceral that one finds in xenophobes and racists of all stamp). Then the westerners started speaking of the nebulae, the NEuen BUndesndern, the new Länder of unified Germany and their bizarre customs. There were also the “Wendehälse,” the European wrynecks, able to turn its head 180 degrees, like the now suddenly former Communist. A cousin of my wife’s, for instance, had been an army officer and had always expressed his anger at “that American” whom he was not allowed to meet, because he was a “holder of secrets.” Suddenly, he wanted to have a beer with me. Then came Ostalgia, nostalgia for the East (Ost). Today, some of those old problems still plague the eastern Länder,

Bit by bit, though, the country did grow back together again. It meant huge investments. There still are differences, and they are always dangerous, because they are visceral. Maybe the jokes were needed to create a bit of excitement and take away some of the raw emotion. But every now and then I will pick up the bit of Wall, or look at my six inches of barbed wire that cut the world in two. And inevitably a tear or two will form as I think of all those people who suffered and continue suffering from the hubris of small-minded men who still use the age-old divide-and-conquer method to maintain their power.

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

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 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.

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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.

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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…