blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

English lesson for a family of five

I rode on busses and trudged through the snow to the opposite end of the city today, to visit a Syrian family of new immigrants (refugees, earlier this year) that I am gradually getting to know. This is the third week in succession that I have gone to their newly rented house in Ottawa to teach the young mother a little English; I'm sharing this task with my friend Vija who visited her on the previous three weeks. The lady seems very young; I found out today that she is only 23 years old, although she already has three children. They are charming: three little girls with curly hair, winning smiles and an intelligent, lively look in their eyes. They are remarkably well behaved, considering the disruptive start they've had to their lives. I met the oldest one for the first time today whose English is already more fluent than her parents'. Being four years old, she goes to a Canadian (pre-)school. Her sisters are still too young. Their father usually attends an English class at the hour when Vija and I come along, but I have met him at the house on my last two visits and he joins in on the periphery of my lessons. He too is a very a courteous person.

This week I planned to teach the mother some verbs in the present continuous and had the opportunity to demonstrate that tense the minute I walked through the door, shaking the wet flakes from my outdoor clothing. It was her husband who had opened the door; she herself was on her knees in the living room, facing Mecca, literally deep in prayer. "I'm sorry I arrived too early," I said to her. "You are praying!" But she didn't seem to mind, and rose from her prayer mat to brush the snow off my bags for me. She and her husband were not only devoting themselves to Allah on this day; they were also fasting ("Not eat!" --- she drew a seal across her mouth and shook her head --- which I tried to correct to "we are not eat-ING. We are fasting," but I'm not sure they understood.) Anyhow, this fast did not prevent my being served a hospitable bowl of sugary rice pudding flavoured with rose water before I left. The baby had some too, from a different bowl. Last week her mother had served me vine leaves (ورق عنب, waraq eanab) stuffed with flavoured rice.

When I first came in, the baby was asleep in a rocking chair, so I took another opportunity to use the present continuous: "Look, she is sleeping." Her older sisters were by no means asleep and came over to see what I was going to do today and what I had in my bag. I had brought a colouring book for the middle daughter with animal pictures and a few repetitive words, so we looked at that in some detail before coming back to the verbs. Not much later, the baby woke up. "Look, she is waking up. She is sitting up. She is smiling!" The baby may not know many words in either language yet, but she seems to accept me and came to me for a cuddle at one point.

I had prepared a sheet of reference notes with only two Arabic words (that I'd found on Google Translate) among my English verb lists: عادة (eada, meaning usually / normally) for the infinitive verbs and الآن (alan, meaning now) for the present continuous verb pattern. I demonstrated "sit ... sit down ... stand ... stand up... walk ... jump ... listen" etc. with actions and gestures and then said told them that NOW "I am standing up ... sitting down ... walking ... speaking English" until they got the message. Then we repeated the words with refernce to a different worksheet, with pictures, saying "He is ... [danc]ing  ... [runn]ing ... read[ing]" and so on. I'm pretty certain that the father had already been through this sort of childish exercise at his official English class before, so he (listening) could follow my gist easily and help his wife with this exercise, discussing it with her in a jumble of Arabic. Clearly, the oldest little girl was understanding my examples too, because she ran to fetch me an picture book with captions, to show me a picture of someone "...playING with a toy." "Look!" she said, and was delighted when I praised her for this. This child --- who has even learned some French at school --- can already combine verbs and nouns in English without prompting and at one point during the conversation lesson her mother managed to do this herself, suddenly coming out with "I am sitting on a chair!" which thoroughly pleased me, because I had been trying to teach her adverbial phrases of place with the relevant prepositions last week.

These English classes are going to be a slow uphill struggle for my family of students, but highly rewarding for me. I'm so glad to have become involved with them.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Timisoara to Sindelfingen

(I still need to add photos to this post.)
Written on Wednesday, 30th November

It feels like ages since we were still in Timisoara, but it was only two days ago. Monday. Chris and Berndt met for breakfast at the hotel before walking to the meeting together. I gather it was a gruelling, but productive one. Chris had to answer some searching technical questions which left Berndt to answer the commercial ones. Meanwhile I walked around the city again, making the most of the brighter weather that day, to take photos that would compliment the ones I took under cloudy skies. I bought a few hand painted souvenirs and postcards (lining up in the post office for stamps for them) and stepped inside the cathedral again, where a colourfully robed priest was sitting in a corner with a young woman, hearing her confession. There were no private confessionals there. Lesser priests and nuns were robed in black. I walked by the river again and had lunch, some ravioli, at a place called Riviere, by the bridge over the Bega. Large Romanian and European flags were hanging from an imposing white building called the Primaria Timisoara (city hall, I guess) and more Romanian flags were being put up around the Christmas Market huts that will soon open for business in the Piata Victoriei outside our hotel. In the sky towering cumulus clouds were building.

Hurrying in from a sudden hailstorm, the men joined me in the hotel lobby where I was waiting with our luggage. The subsequent journey was quite stressful. The taxi we ordered to Timisoara airport picked up someone else instead, outside the hotel, so we had to wait for another one. At the airport were long, slow queues for the bag drop and security checks (I got chatting to some friendly girls from Cheng Du --- in Chinese). Finally we made it to the departure lounge, but hardly any seats were left, because three flight loads of people were waiting to board, some to London, Stanstead, on a Ryan Air flight, others to Madrid on Wizz Air and our lot. The Lufthansa Cityline flight to München was late leaving, so we only just caught our connecting flight, fortunately also delayed, entailing interminable bus rides round München airport, a hasty trot down the long corridors and nothing to eat or drink. But at least these pilots were not on strike and I'm glad to say our luggage also made it to Stuttgart. We landed half an hour late, with not just one but two of the ladies WCs labelled defekt, therefore unusable, and didn't have our supper till nearly 10pm (at the Fässle in Sindelfingen, me in a state of near-collapse from low blood-sugar), after checking into the Torgauer Hof on Hirsauen Straße, when our taxi driver eventually found it. We have a sort of suite here, with kitchen; it's a nice, a quiet little hotel with easy Wifi access, breakfasts inklusiv and complimentary bottles of carbonated mineral water in our room every evening.

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday

I believe this is now the fourth time we have stayed in Sindelfingen; we feel at home here and I am unwinding gently. I have walked through old haunts and new haunts, discovering the park beyond the Klostersee (with its present crust of ice) on Tuesday, and the Mineraltherme (thermal spa with two outdoor and three indoor pools) across the railway at Böblingen today, Thursday. It was a dreamlike experience, swimming slowly into the outdoor pool under the blue sky. The air was so cold and the water so warm, just about blood-warm (36 degrees), that it created a blanket of radiation fog through which distant heads of the other swimmers appeared and disappeared, like a scene from some experimental, surrealist film. In the middle of the pool geysers likewise appeared and disappeared, generating bubbles, and round the edges bathers could sit or stand under waterfalls that massaged shoulders and spine or against warm jets. At the far edge of the pool they had a cool shower of sprinkled water too. The water in every pool was salty, containing a cocktail of healthy minerals, so that swimming under the surface didn't sting one's eyes at all. Indoors were two Entspannungsbecken, relaxation pools, where I could either float on my back and contemplate the hanging decorations or lie back in dimmed blue lighting, with a huge wall of red poppy pictures behind me. In the central indoor pool I joined in with some water exercises, one of the staff calling out instructions for swishing arms and legs around. He had a large class of fairly elderly participants there. When I got tired of being told what to do, I swung my legs over the edge and climbed out. I thought I'd check out the sauna area downstairs but finding it full of naked men (and some naked women) I thought better of that and beat a retreat back to the outdoor pool, far more entspannend. I lay in the water in my swimsuit and gazed at the sky and the trees.

Lazing around in the water had made me surprisingly hungry; I took advantage of the on-site restaurant which served me a delicious lunch with mineral water. Something I hadn't ordered from the menu was a little glass of warm vegetable soup blended with herbs, as a starter, an idea I think I'll copy at home. My main course was herbed rice and fish in a tasty sauce (von der Fischpfanne).

The weather has been crisp and fine. Yesterday (Wednesday) I took a series of local trains to Tübingen and back, where I walked under the row of giant beech trees on the Neckarinsel between the Neckar and its canal. I have been to Tübingen before and knew where the poet Friedrich Hölderlin had lived: in the yellow tower by the river; I went inside and looked around the museum there, then stroked the white cat who came out of the little garden to sit on his doorstep. I peered out of his windows and imagined the swans he saw dipping their heads in the water, as in his famous poem, Hälfte des Lebens. I saw a swan in Tübingen, myself, on the Anlagensee near the station. Up the hill in the old town were crowds of people because this was the day the Schoko-, or Choco-Markt was taking place, chocolate stalls filling the market square and neighbouring streets. I bought a cheese crepe for my lunch and sat on a bench overlooking the old roofs.

The trains trundled me back to Sindelfingen through the half-timbered towns and past dormant vineyards on the hillsides, sloping up to the Black Forest.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Timișoara on a wet Sunday

Such an interesting city. It was raining or drizzling all day long, on Sunday; we continued our explorations even so. First we walked up the street to Chris’ place of work, to see how far it was (less than 500m away) and this direction also took us to the Parcul Botanic that I’d wanted to see, although it seemed rather dreary in the rainy off season. The ponds were drained, seats stacked away and the fountains turned off. In all these city parks are dilapidated corners where the walls, covered in graffiti, have crumbled away. It seems that few repairs have been done since the 19th century. The inner city is like this too.

Next, wading through muddy potholes on the pavement, we found our way to the railway station called Timișoara Nord that Chris was keen to see. I was keen to see the Ladies WC, for which I had to pay 1 Leu, and it didn’t have a seat, but I was handed a more than adequate supply of toilet paper by the chap in the gatehouse. Reminiscent of China. When we looked at the departures board in the main waiting area --- with a food outlet but no seats! --- we realised that we recognised very few of the names of the destinations on display: Iasi, Budapesta, Jimbolia, Vrsac, Sannvicolau Mare, București Nord, Arad, Lovrin, Resita Nord, etc. Actually we had heard of Arad, because we had noticed it on the map; had the Lufthansa pilots continued to let us down by striking, it might have been our first waypoint on an equally long journey by car, or we might have had to change trains there on a long, long train journey to Vienna … and at other stops, in Hungary, with a several hour wait in the middle of the night. To judge by Timișoara Nord, the experience might not have been very pleasant. We did see a train with sleeper coaches parked at the station, the sort of train I used to take through France and Germany in the 1960s.

We made our way back to the inner city, lunching at an Italian spot, not the same place as where we eventually had supper, the Locanda del Corso --- a wonderful restaurant on Lazar Gheorghe, with an open flame pizza oven, steaks (beef, salmon) done to perfection and liqueurs on the house. Between the meals we visited the Muzeul de Arta on the Piata Libertatii, housed within the Baroque Palace. It was marvellous, but I wasn’t allowed to take photographs. All the art was, of course, new to us; fortunately, English translations were provided for the most part. Chris kept returning to a painting that had caught his eye in the lower galleries, entitled Taranca din Vlaici (Peasant Woman from Vlaici), by an artist called Stefan Dimitrescu who died in 1933.

Upstairs they were showing two special exhibitions, a retrospective of the art of Corneliu Baba (1906-97) on one side of the building, and of his contemporary Julius Podlipny (1898-1991) on the other. Both were great artists. I feel annoyed that I have only just come across their work. Both were obviously oppressed by the post war communist régime in Romania and their paintings / pastels / drawings convey suffering. I was so impressed by the Baba paintings that I went to look at them three times. I was not surprised to read that he claimed to have been influenced by both Rembrandt and Goya. The portraits and self portraits (the faces) are intense, often with open mouths as if incredulously appalled at what they have seen. In 1985, elderly Baba did a series of paintings called The Fright which seems to have referred to an earthquake, though it probably has political overtones as well. He did a Pieta, with the people standing around the corpse of Jesus almost backing away in horror. I also noted his portraits of Borges and the famous Romanian composer / conductor Ionescu. There was a painting of the poet Tudor Arghezi and his wife (1961) and of the actress Lucia Sturdza, a force to be reckoned with, by the look of her. The artist obviously looked up to her. I was touched by two paintings of his wife, one executed in 1953 in her middle age when she was already showing signs of strain, and another in the following room of her as an old lady (in 1982). Chris thought she can’t have been pleased with that picture, but I said, “It is truthful.” Sad or not, it was tenderly done. Baba kept coming back to his own face too, the first of these self portraits done when he was only 13, then some rather jokey, youthful ones of the 1930s, before progressing to the depiction of himself as a mature man with a thin, serious, rather crazed face, and long hair. I was struck with one he did of the archetypal Worker, in 1961, a face covered in coal dust, but a very handsome and muscular man, obviously done to please the communists. Then there was an astonishing oil painting of a cockfight, a violent but beautiful painting in swirls of colour.

I didn’t take many notes about Mr. Podlipny because I was getting exhausted, as I do in galleries, but I made a note of Un Suferind Autoportret done in 1978, which had the same intensity as the Babas, and a picture of a lonely beggar playing an accordion in the dark: Musikat batran, that reminded us of the Leiermann from Schubert’s Winterreise. In fact we have seen a few Leiermänner on this trip, both in München and in Timișoara.

I am also haunted by an old lady and a dog that we saw on Friday. The golden haired dog was curled up on a wall by the river, all alone, too lethargic to do more than raise its head and look at us as we went by. Was it abandoned, lost, dying of thirst, dying of some illness? We could do nothing for it. The feeble looking old lady was standing alone in the shadows by a building in the Victory Square, perhaps also sick or lost, or demented, ignored by all passers-by, holding out her hands and saying Ajutor! Ajutor! which I very well understood (it means “Help!”), but I’m ashamed to say we didn’t do anything for her, either.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Timișoara, Saturday afternoon and evening

The flight from München to Timișoara left on time, the people on board mostly Romanian. En route we soon climbed through the layer of low cloud to an altitude where I had a splendid view of the Austrian Alps from my window seat on the right hand side of the Embraer. The cloud looked like a huge snow-white lake among the islands of hills that stuck up through it; as the weather below improved I could see we were crossing steep Alpine valleys. Then came the flat lands of Hungary. When we landed and walked across to the terminal at Timișoara, it was sunny.

Our cases were among the first to roll off, so no waiting for a taxi. The taxi driver could speak enough English for his job, but his seat belts were just for show, with nowhere to insert the clips. My first view of Romania was a long straight road through flat fields, and then at a junction we saw a horse drawn cart. Concrete blocks on the edge of the town, but then we passed older buildings, rather tatty, in need of repair, but looking as though they'd been stylish once. I liked the look of the Parcul Botanic and the street market, then suddenly the Hotel Timișoara was in front of us, very central. It has a modern interior and our room is spacious.

We are an hour ahead of München here, but it was past lunchtime in both time zones when we entered the 19th century splendour of the Restaurant Lloyd opposite the hotel, I ordered a Romanian beef and vegetable soup, preparat tradutional romanesc. A ciorba taraneasca de vacuta, it was called. Other things on the extensive menu didn't appeal so much: soup dumplings boiled cow, fried pork leg, fresh pond frogs, fresh hen eggs, whites and quickly fried in hot oil (omleta simpla), flowers of fried sausages, dry highly seasoned, decorated with vegetables. Shades of China.

We walked down the wide avenue to the Cathedral, past a bronze sculpture on a pole of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the wolf. The Catedrala Mitropolitana is a massive brick edifice, Eastern Orthodox, with a huge image of Jesus painted on the highest cupola. Inside there are no pews, because it is required of worshippers to stand throughout the Divine Liturgy, as in Ukraine or Russia (Romania borders on the Ukraine). We did see people kneeling to kiss three icons in front of the extraordinary gilded altar or to pray beside the candles they had lit in the side chapels. Chris observed that they were crossing themselves right-to-left, which is the opposite way round from western European Catholics or 'high' Anglicans. When we'd gawped at the church interior we walked through the adjacent park to the banks of the river Bega, which is canalised, with willow trees and lovely tall russet conifers I couldn't identify, maybe a sort of Romanian larch. [Added later: My botanist sister has identified it as a swamp cypress, Taxodium distichum.] People were jogging along the river path and children riding push-along scooters and pedal carts. We saw them for hire outside one of the recreation buildings. There were parks all the way along, one of them a rose garden (Parcul Rozelor), another full of climbing structures and fancy "castles" or "pirate ships" for the kids. We saw one man kayaking on the river ... kaiac-ing, I should say, since that word was painted on a wall. So were some extraordinary graffiti.

We spent a long time by the river, eventually returning to the pedestrian zone in the city where there are impressively large squares (Piata Libertatii, Piata Unirii, Piata Sf. Gheorghe), floodlit after dark, clearly modelled on the ones in Italian cities. After all, for a couple of centuries, Romania was Roman, and the language is perhaps the most Latin of the world's languages. Around the perimeter are cafés, many people sitting on the outdoor patios despite the cold weather, to drink and smoke, in their padded jackets. In the evening we found a vegetarian café on a side street (strada) which served light and stylish suppers. Chris had slices of bread spread with hummus with pomegranate seeds. I had an avocado soup with pomegranate seeds and pine nuts. To Chris' delight, we were served by a beautiful girl.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Starnberg instead of Stockholm

We made a slow start, with breakfast in Terminal 1, in a sort of Bavarian tavern, the waiters in blue checked shirts and Lederhosen. Other people were ordering beers and sausages. Buying single tickets for the S-Bahn was a mistake. We could have saved about €34 had we realised that we could buy Tageskarten for the whole network. I should have done more research.

Gemeindeverwaltung at Ismaning

Covered bridge over the Seebach
and church, Ismaning
At 1:30, Chris had to be on the phone with his computer to hand for the Stockholm meeting; therefore we only had time for a short outing that morning. I remembered Ismaning, only three stops down the line, where five years ago we had stayed at the farmhouse-like Hotel Frey with Peter, who had driven us there from Stuttgart. I'd had to memorise the streets to find my own way to the station. What's more, I'd memorised them backwards, so knew how to reach the hotel, although I'd forgotten the little roadside stream. Beyond the Hotel Frey on this occasion we found the Rathaus (a former Schloß) and the Schloßpark. We walked round the village for half an hour before sitting down for sandwiches at the station.

Hotel Frey, Ismaning
During Chris' afternoon meeting I went swimming in the luxurious hotel pool. Steam baths, saunas and a massage parlour were available for nude guests, and a poolside cocktail bar, but the swim was enough for me. I did sit in the hot tub momentarily, keeping my swimsuit on.

Rotkäppchen (Little Red Riding Hood) at the Weihnachtsdorf
At 4pm, when it was already almost dark, Chris could finally relax, so we set off by train again, this time all the way to the Marienplatz in München. The city is lavishly lit and decorated for Christmas. We went window-shopping, could have bought a Rolex watch or Louis Vuitton suit if we'd had the money. We passed the Opera Haus, the massive churches, the city gates and squares and had a posh supper with Glühwein for me at the Luitpold Café (1888), afterwards taking a look at the kitschy Weihnachtsdorf with its dioramas of German fairy tales in the courtyard of the Residenz, and the Hofgarten. We were lucky to catch an S8 train back to the airport just in time.

Friday, some of this written on the train to Starnberg
This was supposed to have been our free day in Stockholm --- postponed indefinitely!

Chris was worried by a message from one of his colleagues recommending that we fly to Timisoara by Air Berlin instead of Lufthansa. Following up this suggestion meant a long morning at the airport with a horrid breakfast at Surf and Turf, because I couldn't face yet more bacon. Then we took a long walk down conveyor belts and up escalators through Terminal 1 to the Air Berlin ticket desk. We'd have to fly via Rome and Budapest, they said, by Air Italia, and the journey to Timisoara would take 26 hours. Since Lufthansa flights were still promised for the next day Chris at last decided to "take our chances" and stick to Plan A, which I'd been advising all along.

At Starnberg, by the lake

So finally we left the airport on the S8 train again, changing beyond the city centre at Pasing so that we could catch a connecting train to Starnberg; I wanted Chris to see the Starnberger See. Well, we did see it, but not the view of the snowy Alps that start to rise at the southern end. It was too cloudy. Chilly, too, but we soon found an ideal spot for lunch at the Maharaja, a Bengali restaurant that served good, hot food. Through its windows we could see another restaurant across the road, in a nineteenth century house with a haiku-like poem on its wall:
Am stillen See
Sitz' ich und starre 
In ein gespiegeltes Paradies.

Full of energy after the curries, we decided to climb the hill to St. Josef's church beside the town's castle, up many stone steps. It was worth it; this part of town was very peaceful with another view of the lake. Beside the church, not open, was a walled Schloßgarten with an attractive layout. We came down some other flights of steps back to the high street, with luxuries for sale. A lovely grey Dirndl for nearly €1000 caught my eye. We bought postcards and lingered by the lake near the pleasure boats docked for winter and the locked up boathouses, then caught the train back to the city.

The city was packed, this being the official opening of Munich's central Christkindlmarkt, with amplified speeches and music. Fighting our way down the Kaufingerstraße was rather exhausting, so we had a hot drink and a slice of cake in a very narrow coffee bar before moving on to marginally quieter streets. We came across the Isartor and the famous Münchener Hofbräuhaus that I'd described over a microphone to the diplomat guests at our "Oktoberfest" in Ottawa, after singing the song about it. Too crowded for us! I have a habit of making off down side streets and into courtyards when in a place I don't know so well. It leads to discoveries like the Theatinerhof where we had supper, at the quiet and elegant Café-Arzmiller. No crowds there. Chris had their thick pea soup; I had the lentil soup. After that we found a branch of Hugendubel, where I bought a German novel.

Back at the airport hotel we both had a swim: a lovely way to end the day.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Back to MUC

Written Wednesday

Another rewarding day, but with an unexpected ending. We are not setting off for Stockholm at the crack of dawn tomorrow, after all. We are staying in Munich. The reason for this is that the Lufthansa pilots’ strike has been extended and no one will be available to take control of Flight 2414, across the Baltic Sea. I was really looking forward to Sweden, but never mind. There are some advantages, the best being that Chris now gets two days of rest instead of one. He can attend tomorrow’s meeting by telephone instead of in person. We no longer need to buy Swedish Kroner. Tomorrow morning, we’ll be able to lie in, and not only shall I have time for a swim; I’ll also have time to wash some clothes. 

Unterer Graben
This morning Chris and Marcus left for work at 8 o’clock and I had a leisurely breakfast before writing my blog and reading the paper, since I had the whole morning to pack and check out. Leaving the luggage at the reception desk, I walked into town again, by yet another new route, this time over the Schiller Bridge, downstream of the others. The riverside looks quite countrified. Then I explored those corners of the Altstadt that I hadn’t yet seen. This time, I started behind the Neues Schloss; a former mill-house stands beside it, where they used the grind corn on demand to keep it fresh. The corn came down the river on barges. Opposite was one of the 19th century gun factories. Nowadays the castle is a Bavarian Army Museum, and within the walls with their Baroque clock tower is a formidable row of canons. I followed the street called Unterer Graben along the line of the former city walls. The houses there still have little turrets among the roofs. Because the line curves, I lost my bearings and had to refer to the map as I came down Proviantstraße, back to the centre where I browsed in a Dirndl shop without buying anything and then ate a Chinese buffet lunch with chopsticks. On my walk I had seen a Duke’s castle dating back to the 13th century, now a library, and the Tillyhaus on Neubaustr, where the Graf von Tilly died in the 17th century. The Parade Ground wasn't its usual self, being covered with Christmas market stalls at present, as are other parts of town. I had fun with my camera.

At the medical museum yesterday the receptionist had recommended I take a look at the Maria de Victoria Church, a very ornate one with an elaborate ceiling painting. I found it, went inside, and found it far too over the top in every sense for my taste, so backed out quickly without paying the statutory entrance fee and continued my wanderings along the quiet Gassen (narrow side streets) back to the Konditorei where my Ingolstadt explorations had begun, on Monday. The Stammkunden (regulars) were enjoying their afternoon teas there. In fact I was asked to move seats to accommodate them: a table of old ladies and a table of old gentlemen. I found their proximity very restful, but as I sat there, I went onto the Lufthansa website and found the unanticipated cancellation of our next flight. Sent text messages to Chris and arranged to meet him back at the Classic Oldtimer. He and Marcus turned up promptly despite the rush hour traffic, very pleased with the way their meetings had gone, then we all climbed into our rental car, the Peugot with its useless GPS screen, to head back to the airport where Marcus could continue his travels by train. The 70km drive was fairly nerve-wracking again; fortunately I was in the back seat this time. However, our reception at the car drop area was extremely efficient; with many garage attendants on duty, we were on our way with the transaction completed less than two minutes after coming to a halt.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Tolerance and intolerance in the history of Ingolstadt


A day for learning. I reached the Stadtmuseum shortly after 12 --- no doubt about the time of day because I was standing right beside the cathedral when the noon bell began to chime --- then walked a short distance auf der Schanze, the other side of the Kreuztor, along what used to be the outside of the city wall. I meant to stay in that museum for half an hour at most, because it was time for lunch, but it proved to be so interesting that almost an hour and a half had gone by before I left.

From my notes on the History of Ingolstadt: This place wasn’t always located on the banks of the Danube. Before human intervention (canals, etc.), the great river meandered south of here with many swamps and oxbow lakes through what is now Manching. The first inhabitants to leave any traces (at burial sites) were the Bronze Age people of 2000 B.C.or thereabouts. A mysterious necklace from that era, the Bernstein-Collier was on display at the museum, made of 2700 stone beads, an extraordinary find! No one knows where it had been made, or why.

Then came the Romans, who began to straighten things out. In the 2nd century A.D. they built watermills, straight roads and irrigation systems in this borderland; the most important thing they built, to their way of thinking, was a Great Wall just north of the Danube, the Rätische Mauer, 550 km long, with a moat and many watchtowers, to keep the marauding natives out. Does that remind you of anything?

Like everything else in history, the Roman Empire eventually died away, although its influence remained. In the 7th century, a couple of children were entombed near here. I saw their skeletons, dug up and lying side by side, the little boy’s skeleton surrounded by his toys such as a miniature, Romanic sword; the little girl had been buried with her necklaces and a favourite comb. I wasn’t convinced that these remains ought to be kept in a museum. I felt sad for them and their long ago parents.

By the time Ingolstadt had reached the 16th century, the Innenstadt looked much as it does today. Charlemagne’s documents mentioned it in the 9th century and it was officially designated a city in the mid 13th. In 1392 Ingolstadt became the capital city of the local Duchy (Herzogtum). Its university, founded in 1472, was known for its tolerance, humanism and cutting edge science under the influence of Erasmus and the Reformation, but that revolution “ fehlgeschlagen” --- i.e. failed --- because of an anti-semitic, 16th century rector, Dr. Johannes Eck, whose name was shortened to Dreck (= dirt!) by Luther, because they didn’t see eye to eye. Dr. Eck had books printed (I saw one in a display cabinet) with a cartoon of Luther on the frontispiece, wearing devil’s horns. The reactionary Jesuits were in charge of university education here from 1549 onwards: they were the Counter Reformation and established a huge seminary here. Their books were mostly printed in Latin or Greek, or both. I saw a copy of Sophocles Antigone, with the Greek original on one side of the page and a Latin translation on the other.

In the 16th century, while the Swedes were waging war in this part of the world (Protestants v. Catholics), the city built fortifications and a city wall. During the 30 years war in the 17th century and the Napoleonic wars in the 19th, substantial further fortifications were built.

The museum displayed a replica of a wooden model with miniature houses and churches made by a city planner, Jakob Sandtner, in 1571. Hardly anything has changed within the Altstadt since then, although nowadays there is a vast Audi factory on the edge of Ingolstadt, as large as Monaco, apparently. I didn't find a mention of this in the museum, but Chris and Marcus saw it yesterday.

In 1632, at the height of the Swedish attack, the city was besieged. There was a battle, and Gustav Adolf von Schweden’s horse, known as der Schweden Schimmel, was shot down. The Bavarians immediately had the dead animal rather well stuffed and mounted as a souvenir, and there it is, in the museum. I was tempted to stroke it.

Time went by and in the 18th century, Duke Maxmillian III and his Polish wife encouraged the advancement of science at the University of Ingolstadt. Die Aufklärung setzte sich endlich durch: i.e. at last Enlightenment prevailed! 19th century Ingolstadt was a military establishment, hence all the circular stone towers in the park near our hotel. French prisoners of war from Africa were paraded here in the 1870s. The city manufactured armaments and military musical instruments; it was also famous for making church organs and zithers; Zither-Vereine (clubs) were popular.

The 20th century, needless to say, was full of grim moments. The locals were annoyed to see the Bavarian Army disbanded in 1919. In January 1945 Ingolstadt was heavily bombed with the loss of 650 lives; the railway station was burned to the ground, and on April 26th of that year the Americans crossed the Danube and marched in. A gallery near the end of the museum’s permanent exhibition was a memorial to the men and women who had been victims of the Nazi régime, including a bespectacled vicar (b. 1900) who had stood up to the Nazis and was therefore imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp. He came out “a broken man”, but did recover and survive, to resume his job, living until the age of 79. Similarly, representatives of the Unions and the SDP were remembered, as well as two deserters from the army, one born in 1924 and the other in 1914, both of whom were executed by firing squad in 1945. A middle aged woman was commemorated, whom the Nazis had forcibly sterilised because she had an epileptic teenage daughter, and then, of course, there were also the Jews who had lived here.

I found a photo of 2nd World War refugees housed in Ingolstadt, along with the information about the 1950s reconstruction efforts. The bridge I crossed in the morning and afternoon, by the way, is called the Konrad-Adenauer-Brücke. I’m glad he is still remembered with gratitude.

I emerged from the museum very hungry, until I remembered that the wrapped cheese sandwich that had been handed to me on the flight from London to München was still in my bag. I topped it with a cappucino and a slice of Apfelkrüste from one of the bakeries am Stein.

The Deutsches Medizin-historisches Museum at the Alte Anatomie on Anatomiestraße was another worthwhile discovery. In the afternoon, I was its only visitor, so got the full attention of the curators. Having paid my 2€ Eintritt (senior’s rate) a gentleman with an incomprehensible Bavarian accent led me up the garden path into an annex (the other side of an ornamental herb garden) to see their special exhibition on the removal of kidney stones through the ages. I nodded wisely at everything he failed to tell me. I couldn’t bear to stay there for long, recovering by myself among the dying roses and by the fish pond, while the old chap remained seated among the gruesome exhibits. The main exhibition is within the stately home with its Baroque architecture, its exterior painted yellow, and a panoramic view from its upstairs window. Again I had a museum guide to myself, although she didn’t intrude while I learned about Ingolstadt’s medical history, described in a series of biographies of eminent doctors who had worked here, in galleries displaying pictures and examples of medical equipment, with explanatory notes alongside. Once again, I read about the clash between philosophies and attitudes religious (or superstitious) and rational (or profane). How students of medicine had cut up paupers’ corpses to further their knowledge of anatomy; how the dying and their families had been comforted in different ways through the centuries; how patients had to be held down for surgery without anaesthetics; how astrology and homeopathy have been respected by patients and practitioners alike. My overwhelming feeling on emerging from this experience was profound relief that we have finally reached the 21st century.

With Marcus again, in the evening, we found a Greek place for supper near the Frauenkirche.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Monday in Ingolstadt

As I'd promised myself, I spent a sunny autumn day exploring Ingolstadt, first wandering back and forth through the Klenzepark, free of mists and frost at 10am, to the Donausteg, the footbridge over the river. The Neues Schloss was not all that new, dating from the first half of the 15th century when Ludwig der Gebärtete (Lewis the Bearded) had it built. I think I shall start calling my husband Christoph der Gebärtete (Christopher the Bearded). Then I started zigzagging through the Altstadt, drawn further and further in by the appeal of the towers, spires, domes, and fancy facades of many different pastel shades. It took a while for me to realise that most of the buildings in the old town of today are, in fact, replicas, the originals having presumably been destroyed by bombs during the 2nd World War.

When I reached the Altstadt by way of the tunnel under the Schloßlände, I first bought myself a coffee in a deserted Konditorei. The girl there seemed surprised my arrival, although it was already well past 10am. They also sold homemade chocolate in an Ingolstadt wrapper; I bought three bars. Then I set out to see what else the district had to offer. The shops were fun. I found 3D postcards next door to a tiny shop called Geschmacks-Sachen which sold spices and smelled wonderful. I went inside to chat to the lady in there who gave me a free sample sachet of Haxenwürzer to take home, spices for flavouring meat. Their motto is “Ois was guad is” meaning Eat What’s Good, I guess. Beyond the Rathausplatz, at the music shop, with a whole family of the stringed instruments in its window, I bought a Christmas gift for my son George, which also necessitated a visit to a shop selling gift wrap. At the large, attractive post office, painted yellow all over, like the postboxes, I queued to buy stamps, then wandered further, taking photos at nearly every corner because the street views are so picturesque.

The post office, Ingolstadt

Before lunch, I had time to linger in the largest church in town, with a belltower about 70m high: the 15th century Liebfrauenmünster (or Zur Schönen Unserer Lieben Frau -- in strange old German). In Britain they’d probably have called it St. Mary’s. Unlike most Catholic cathedrals, this one was not terribly ornate, but contained some strikingly good art works, in particular an framed painting of the “Dreimal Wunderbare Mutter” (= thrice wonderful mother, not a contemporary reference to Frau Merkel) dated 1570, the frame decorated by huge lapiz lazuli stones. In that same side chapel was a modern stained glass window, dated 2003, by an artist called Fritz Baumgartner: Das Litaneifenster. I was so impressed by this, that I bought a booklet about it to give to a lady I met at my mother’s care home who used to be a stained glass artist but who has had her legs amputated. She is the same age as I am.

Further on, I found a 3-storey branch of Hugendubel, the bookshop I know from Munich and Stuttgart, always a good place to shop. I bought a funny German Survival-Kalender there, for Chris.

I was spoiled for choice for lunch. In the end I decided to eat on the top floor of the Kaufhof, decorated with Bavarian flags, which had free wifi and a view of the red roofs. Further wandering after that took me to the Taschenturm, a former gate in the city walls, via the Hochschule, site of the first Bavarian university in 1472, with a 1950s mural on its wall. I suppose this must have been another building that was bombed to bits.

The many museums of Ingolstadt are closed on Mondays, so I did well to choose this day for simply getting my bearings. On Wednesday the Ingolstadt Christkindlmarkt will open in the Viktualienmarktplatz, which I’ll probably have time to look at before we leave. This time, I walked slowly back to the hotel, sitting on a garden bench near the fortress to eat an apple. Once in the hotel room, I had a recuperative sleep.

Chris and his Hanover colleage Marcus returned utterly exhausted to the hotel at the end of the day, then at 6pm we all set off again in search of supper. We found some at Le Café (not very French really) on Schrannenstraße. Chris and Marcus were attracted to the Leckeres Steakmenü and I had a delicious venison Edelgoulasch (literally: noble stew) with Brenzknödeln, red cabbage and a pear, filled with cranberry sauce. We found our way there and back in the dark without any problems.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Sunday evening, getting to Ingolstadt

Munich airport was buzzing, with its famous Christmas market already in full swing in the space between Terminals 1 and 2. Too preoccupied for shopping, we walked round the edge with our luggage, seeking the car rental offices, eventually finding them in Terminal 1, and on the way catching a glimpse of the hotel where we’ll be on Wednesday. The AVIS girl, who was charming, spoke to us only in German, which was flattering. My attention wandered while Chris was filling in the forms so I didn’t catch the fact that she was giving us an automatic car, even though we’d been assigned a manual, originally. Chris didn’t quite catch this either. The car was waiting for us at spot 410 on Level 4 of Zone 6, at the western end. When we emerged from the “Lift” (they no longer use the German word Aufzug) there was no indication as to which way was west; we just kept walking to find the number. Parking spots in Europe are a lot tighter than in N. America; I couldn’t get into my side of the car, so was waiting outside as Chris turned on the ignition. A horrible scrunching noise from the engine; it was pretty clear to me that the brakes were still on. He said they weren’t. The car rolled forward fine when in neutral, but still refused to move when the drive gear was engaged. About five goes later Chris realised that it was indeed an automatic vehicle, with two pedals only, and that he’d been pressing both the accel and the brake pedal (not the clutch after all!) simultaneously. When you’re jet-lagged …

So we moved forward and, once we realised we needed the card she’d given us to open the barrier, out of the garage. The next challenge was working out how to input the destination address into the GPS gadget, but all it seemed to be giving us was a map of where we were, not where we had to go. We gave up and decided to follow the Google directions on my laptop instead, which I’d left at the correct page, but when I picked up that machine, the screen went blank. This meant that I had to try to remember what I’d read, back in London. I did well: apart from the distances I could remember all of the essentials, therefore we did head away from the airport in the right direction! First though, we were beeped at, because our headlights weren’t on, and it was already night. We had to pull over and try to get them working. This took a good five minutes, as tension levels rose. Then, with some difficulty, we pulled out into the traffic, following the signs for Alle Richtungen. The crucial turn from the airport highway was the one onto the A9 towards Nürnberg, some 15 minutes later. I was still trying to get the GPS to work to the accompaniment of distracting exclamations from Chris when we reached it; fortunately he spotted the slipway sign just in time. Once on the Autobahn, the navigation was self-evident; this was when we finally got the hang of the GPS, now that we didn’t really need it any more. The exit for Ingolstadt along the Maichingerstraße was clearly marked. There was only one turn to make once in the town, and the hotel was straight ahead.

We did a complete circumnavigation of the hotel before we found its rather small entrance. It is the Classic Oldtimer, built around a showroom of classic oldtimer cars. There’s a motorbike on our floor as well, and an alarming set of cymbals and drums, which I hope are just for show. On the walls, including bedroom walls, are pictures of girls from the past, all posing with cars.

In the evening, we had an Italian supper perched at one of the tall tables in the bar of an hotel diagonally across the road from ours, with a row of four large screens over the counter, each broadcasting a different TV channel, overstimulating for the eyes and brain, not healthy. The food and beer was good, though. After that we needed some fresh air, so we walked into the Klenzepark through a cyclists’ tunnel, the lamplight very dim, as is typical for Germany after dark, with mist rising from the lawns, passing what I now know is the Exerzierhaus and Reithalle that belonged to an old military fort, then the Reduit Tilly and the Turm Trivia, the German equivalent of Kingston’s Murney Towers in Ontario, now a Police Museum. Then we came upon the River Danube (die Donau) flowing swiftly along and reflecting the lights. The most impressive of these were the floodlights illuminating the Neues Schloss across the river. I snapped it from the bridge.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

My thousandth post

According to the Blogger stats, this is the 1000th time I have published a post on this blog.


I’m composing this as a Google Document on my Chromebook at Heathrow, the Internet connection having failed me mid-browse, may continue writing on our next flight, which will be shorter than the one on Friday night.

We had a lovely day with Emma, Peter, Alexander and Thomas yesterday, jetlag notwithstanding, including a few hours out of doors in Bushy Park which I had also seen from 7000ft during our approach to London from the air. Other views worth mentioning were the dawn sky, that never fails to thrill me from the air, this time with pink tinged towering cumuli anvils over distant North Wales. I’d seen the Atlantic breakers crashing dramatically on the Irish coast in the early light, too, and the bare hills of Ireland, dusted with snow. Across the Irish Sea the Welsh coast looked similar and plenty of snow seems to have fallen on the Brecon Beacons. Then I saw the two suspension bridges over the Severn Estuary, the Thames Valley and the Weald.

That was all I had time to write at Heathrow, before eating a delicious salad for lunch at Terminal 2’s La Salle restaurant, garnished with a kind of red berries like cranberries, but with a pointed end, that I couldn’t identify. Preiselbeeren? I am now somewhere over Germany, mid-flight, with a view of clouds from my Lufthansa window seat. Chris has the seat in front of mine. We’ll land at Munich in about half an hour.

Alexander’s appearance and behaviour was most reassuring, yesterday. I watched him inject himself in the thigh with insulin and prick his own fingers, squeezing out the blood for sugar-level testing, all without fuss. He has rosy cheeks and bright eyes now, and his new equipment has caused a sensation among his friends. His mother is weighing every gram of what he eats, measuring every mouthful; it is just as well she is a metrologist by profession and such a stickler for organisational charts and to do lists, at home as well as at work. Ironically, it almost seems she was born for this. Alex’ father is a metrologist, too; the family makes a good little team!

Our grandsons
The boys demonstrated their drawing skills to me before lunch, a flying scene: helicopters, rockets and other aircraft in their picture, including an aerial Pegasus. On our afternoon walk too, we all had a dose of normality. The boys and their dad ran around with a rugby ball as if nothing were amiss, healthwise, we walked through the ornamental Water Garden where Canada Geese were waddling and Pokémon characters popped up, stopped for a sit-down at the Bushy Park café, and on the way home Thomas chatted to me non-stop about his life as a Year 1 schoolboy. He has a special T-shirt for gymnastics and can do a somersault in the air, so long as there’s the big mat to catch him when he lands. “My class is going to sing first,” he said, “in the Christmas play.”

Approaching Munich as the sun goes down
Yesterday evening Chris and I ate well at the Park Hotel’s restaurant, thus avoiding a hunt for a restaurant in the rain that was coming on. Then we slept for a good 12 hours.

Through a break in the clouds, I just spotted the Rhine. We are already descending to a lower flight level … and in the distance ahead, I can see the snowy peaks of the Alps!

Friday, November 18, 2016

Leaving on another trip

I failed to update my blog for a few weeks. Back to it, now, because we're setting off on an interesting trip to Europe, and I want to record this. I'm writing this post at Ottawa airport while waiting for our old, familiar flight AC888 to Heathrow, to board. The plan is to spend tomorrow with the London branch of our family, a visit which turns out to be important, because our grandson Alexander, not quite 10, has just been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, and needs all the support he can get. So do his parents and his younger brother.

On Sunday morning we depart for München, because at 8:30am on Monday Chris will be hard at work with a room full of software engineers in Ingolstadt / Gaimersheim. We're going to be staying at a hotel that looks from the photos as if it is part of an automobile showroom; we shall see when we get there. On Wednesday afternoon we return to MUC to spend the night there, because early on Thursday morning we shall be departing early on a flight to Stockholm, so that Chris can participate in a workshop there, the same afternoon. We'll spend two nights at the Stockholm airport (ARN) because our departure on Saturday morning has to be even earlier than the other one (07:45). Our destination that day is Timisoara, Romania. We only be able to see Romania for 48 hours before returning to Germany on Monday evening after another day of customer liaison work for Chris. Then we stay in Sindelfingen (near Stuttgart) for another 4 nights, so that Chris can attend the annual ESE-Kongress, before boarding our penultimate flight, to London again. At the end of that third weekend we can stop whirling around and settle down, back at home.

I am looking forward to all of it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A moment of tranquility

From the Winterreise, song number 20, Der Wegweiser.
... und ich wandere sonder Maßen ohne Ruh und suche Ruh ...
(... and I wander on and on, unresting, in search of rest ...)
Ruh' (Ruhe) also means quietness, silence, tranquility, peace.

Chris sings that line with great feeling; anyone would, because we're all longing for relief from disturbances.

For a few moments at a time I sometimes find that relief by going outside and stopping under the trees by the river, near our house, and drinking in their colours and shapes. It's not a permanent escape from news in the papers or on the screen, or from phone calls and TO-DO lists, but it helps.

I've no idea whether or not this habit would be of benefit to other people; I know that it works for me.

Songs in German

Chris has a new singing teacher, a young man who's keen on Schubert-Lieder and can play the accompaniments; what a fortunate discovery! They're going to be working on one or two of the Winterreise songs together this evening. This lets me off the hook to some extent, but on second thoughts, because Chris will have higher expectations after these lessons, I'll have to work harder at playing the accompaniments at home.

Last week I went to another of those Wednesday lunchtime DOMS concerts: "Opera selections by G. F. Handel and W. A. Mozart" and Lieder by Richard Strauss, including his Four Last Songs, sung by Stephanie Piercey Beames, soprano, with Nadia Boucher, pianist. The Strauss songs are very appropriate for this time of year, and have been going round my head every since I was at the concert, especially that last one, that wonderful setting of the touching Eichendorff poem, Im Abendrot. Strauss was living in Garmisch-Patenkirchen at the end of his life and must have been inspired by the peaceful Alpine landscape there. Chris and I may have the chance to go there next month, but I had better not anticipate too much. The young pianist at the concert did her job very well, but it sounds better with an orchestral accompaniment. Elizabeth Schwarzkopf probably gave the definitive performance:

Ms. Piercey Beames provided her own translation of the poems. For my taste she put too much vibrato into the songs, but her performance was well received. She obviously loved them.

From the sublime to the ridiculous ... on Friday, I was responsible for the singing of some other German songs when our Diplomatic Hospitality Group hosted an Oktoberfest-style lunch at the Maple Leaf Almrausch Club. Our German conversation group had been asked to provide the "entertainment", which consisted of me wearing a Dirndl and talking into a microphone about the origins of the Oktoberfest, then leading the German speakers and our guests (diplomats and other friends) into some singing, starting with the beer-drinking song, Im München steht ein Hofbräuhaus with its obligatory swaying (Schunkeln) to the music. I told them some anecdotes about the Hofbräuhaus which I'd looked up on the Internet beforehand. We continued with a merry folksong about the gypsies –– Lustig ist das Zigeunerleben –– then O du lieber Augustin, and Auf einem Baum ein Kuckuk saß, a repetitive children's song with a nonsense refrain that goes Simsaladim bamba saladu saladim. I got some of the diplomats singing along to that. Our accompanist was my friend Vija (also wearing a Dirndl) who had persuaded her husband to come along to help her carry and set up the electronic keyboard. She also persuaded him ... and Chris! (to his considerable embarrassment because he was put on the spot and had to sight-read)... to join in with the singing on stage. At least Chris and Rolf didn't have to wear Lederhosen.

At the Almrausch lunch, photos by Carol Hinde

Monday, October 24, 2016

Explaining China

Alexandre Trudeau speaking to the CCFS
Alexandre Trudeau's ambition, he said, is to "explain China" to the rest of us. He has written a book called Barbarian Lost and at a very well attended public CCFS meeting on October 12th he talked about the ideas behind it. The title refers to a book by his father, the late Pierre Trudeau, written in 1960: Two Innocents in Red China. Canada was the first western nation to establish diplomatic relations with modern China, back in the 1970s. Alexandre (Sasha) is the current PM's younger brother. Both sons went with Pierre on an official tour of China in 1990 when they were teenagers. Trudeau senior, who had first visited China as long ago as 1949, thought of himself first and foremost as a traveller, a coureur du bois.  His son Alexandre sees himself as a loner, outsider, a pilgrim, passing through the world.

He has made documentary films but believes that people change when you point a camera at them. A book makes for truer observations.

To understand the world, you have to try to understand China, he says: experience it first through your senses, without preconceived ideas. Start in a place like Chongqing, he suggests. When you are in this foreign place you see your own world from a distance, from the Chinese perspective, and that changes your perceptions.

"Everything I need from China will always be with me." He has learned that wisdom doesn't come from quick answers. Failure and having been overwhelmed is what makes us wise; the sacrifices made by our ancestors are what allows us to be here now. The Taoist vision of immortality has had a powerful influence on him, the idea that we are part of a thread or a bridge between the generations.

Early China was so isolated from the rest of the world –– by oceans, deserts and mountains –– that the Chinese had to meet their challenges internally. Now at last it is part of the community of nations, obtaining oil from the middle east, food from Africa and so on. In the 1960s China suffered famine; since then it has cultivated or imported plenty. The Cultural Revolution, according to Alexandre Trudeau, "rebooted" China, which nowadays has a middle class 800 million strong; the 21st century will belong to China, he asserts. Its young people are making an identity for themselves, as did North Americans in the 1960s. Having eradicated or fabricated / re-invented its past, China must find a new way of seeing itself. He detects a need for more than material possessions, hence the religious revivals rushing in to fill the vacuum. Money and religion have become closely intertwined and this has political implications. The number of intellectuals who criticise their government is growing. Art is important to these people.

We in the west have a huge lack of knowledge about the Chinese, and vice versa. Only now are they beginning to take their first steps into the outside world. We ought not to impose our own ideas upon them.

The history of China is primarily about food; it's a farming society trying to solve the problem of how to feed all those people. Even in 5 BC, Confucius was nostalgic for the old days when people understood where their food and clothing came from. When they lost that awareness, they lost their sense of responsibility. However, nowadays the entrepreneurial spirit is very much alive within China's small villages. Canada seems very "sleepy and complacent" in comparison.

Members of the audience asked Alexandre Trudeau for his views of what the future holds. Conquest and dominion over others on a grand scale is no longer possible in the modern world, but there is always a danger that China might become aggressive towards its immediate neighbours. China sees itself historically as a victim of the western world which set the tone in past centuries with its belief that Might is Right. But being overwhelmed by failure and defeat can bring wisdom. The modern world doesn't need another bully and we must hope that China's new found strength and nationalist spirit will equate with moderation. Trudeau is not pessimistic, but China and the developing world needs to see more of a "noble vision" from the west. He believes that trade between Canada and China is bound to be mutually beneficial, but has his doubts about the domination of corporate interests.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

An Afghan doctor

Dr. Hasina Rasuli is a Tajik who has felt rejected by her Pashtun associates; tribal tensions are still a fact of life in Afghanistan. 75% of Afghans still live in the rural areas where 30 years of conflict have damaged the structures of schools and other communal buildings, so they are not making very rapid progress. Hasina has been involved as a director and consultant in education and health initiatives, agricultural projects (creating jobs in lieu of poppy production) and women's rights programs, in the rural north. It is important for women from different areas of the country to get together to compare their experiences, she said.

Afghans do not ask for help when they are sick or overstressed; they tend to believe that a visit to a sacred shrine like the Blue Mosque in Masar-e Sharif will solve their problems. She told us of mobile health units set up for people –– adults! ––  who had never seen a doctor before, who urgently need health education and family planning advice, but as she became more experienced in her work, Hasina stopped distributing medicine so freely because she realised it was being ignorantly misused.

She admitted that wearing a burqa did allow for freedom of movement outside the home; women recognise one another by their shoes. She is proud of her achievements but now that she has come to Canada she feels she must stay here; she has made such an impact in Afghanistan that she fears it wouldn't be safe for her to go back there. It is traditional for a women living with her parents to be called a "girl" and be expected to behave demurely. Then, once she becomes engaged, she is obliged to wear make-up and jewelry whether she wants to or not. Pride in a woman is considered shameless. Eye-contact with strangers and a self-confident body language –– as in my photos –– would mark her as abnormal over there, a "bad woman." Hasina told us of her younger sisters and of the female medical students who need to overcome these obstacles and attitudes. The recipient of a higher education grant does sometimes gain kudos for the whole family and the increase in income helps. A doctor in Afghanistan will earn $50 per month, a teacher, $30. However, men don't always take their female colleagues seriously even when they work 20 hours a day.

All the same, women look at the future with hope, said Hasina, and do not dwell on the past. As simple a thing as installing ladies' washrooms in offices makes their lives easier. If they become landowners as, by law, they now may, they can open bank accounts; however, a woman may not acquire property unless she has sons. Even so, Hasina mentioned a woman who lost seven sons and yet thanked God for her daughter.

Hasina is writing a book: profiles of "bold" Afghan women.

Some Afghan men are helpful, including her own father, educated by the Russians; she says there are plenty of good men in Afghanistan, but warns of double standards. Some are very willing to support women's advancement, so long as it doesn't concern members of their own families. But if the men can be truly supportive, "that's the solution!" she says.

Trouble and co-operation on the border

I don't mean any present day border, although it approximates to the present day border country between Turkey and Syria, from the Taurus Mountains to the alluvial plains of the Euphrates.

Taurus Mountains (Wikipedia image)
On Sunday at Saint Paul University we heard Prof. Asa Ager of UNC (Greensboro) give an archeology lecture. His subject was the frontier between the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Caliphate in the early middle ages. The subheading was: "Interaction and Exchange Among Muslim and Christian Communities". Before attending the lecture I knew practically nothing about this subject. Here are some notes I took.

The Byzantine landscape in this part of the world was seen by Muslims as a wilderness; they planned to cultivate and civilise it, like settlers a thousand years later, wanting to tame the American West. The mountains formed a natural divide, although it was a permeable one because of the "gaps between the teeth" in the mountains, as the people called them: the passes.

Prof. Ager told us of archeological digs recently done in Antioch (now Antakya, Turkey) and in places north of there and around the Euphrates. The archeologists had used remote sensing and satellite imagery too. For obvious reasons several study sites near Aleppo and Raqqa, Syria, have recently been put out of bounds. The word Raqqa, incidentally, means "flooded plain". The researchers had studied canal sites, marsh sites and way-stations. He mentioned that after the first Muslims took control of Syria in the 8th century, far fewer villages existed than before that time. They had not been heavily defended; many were unwalled.

Canal sites
Traces of these settlements were discovered in the vicinity of the Afrin River or the Euphrates: evidence of water lifting devices and mills. Irrigation systems protected farmers against lean years and cooperation between the landowners, through water councils, was essential for the sharing of resources. After the early Islamic conquests, Muslim farmers took over abandoned lands and developed or revitalised them, which allowed them tax exemptions. Any remaining Syriac Christians were permitted to keep their lands. According to the 7th / 8th century poet Jarir b. Atiya, the area was "a paradise on earth" and onlookers would "bite their fingertips" (a sign of jealousy) to see the orchards ready for harvest.

Marsh sites
During Byzantine days, massive erosion on the slopes of the uplands had occurred, due to unsustainable agricultural practices. When the canals flooded, wetlands became more permanent. This was not a deterrent to some Islamic settlers who constructed their villages in the wettest parts, such as the Lake of Antioch, not drained until the mid-20th century. These were reed-gathering people on small islands, who extracted clay from the marsh bed and hunted waterfowl for their sustenance. These medieval Marsh Arabs were independent-minded people who tended to rebel against the Caliph's armies. Along with their water buffalo, they were relocated or became nomadic and may be the ancestors of today's Romany.

People stopped here to trade brass and ceramic artifacts, and travelling fairs came by. Armies did not much interfere with these activities although armies came and went, and prisoners were sometimes exchanged (bartered) at the river crossings. The Abassids connected with the outside world by sea, so the cedar and pine trees growing around the way stations were cut down as timber for the construction of merchant ships. Fig trees grew there too.

Prof. Ager's lecture included a mention of Christian monasteries in the region, that had flourished for centuries and that remained functional until the 10th century. The monks had no specific loyalties or inhibitions, it seems. Travellers were served wine there and the attractive young monks and nuns appealed to some, such as an Abassid aristocrat who referred to a "tempting gazelle" he had noticed, whether male or female is unclear. The caves of Cappadocia were a special case, where Christian communities, both people and animals, sought refuge from invaders and inclement winters. In fact the Islamic raids only took place in the spring or summer; the Arabs knew of their underground granaries and the troglodytes' passages were sealed with great stones for greater security. Christians would raid Islamic lands as well.

The plains of Syria were dry as a bone in the summer months, which caused the Bedouin tribes to wander westwards towards the mountains and with their herds of sheep they might join Byzantine groups. To some extent the construction of the canals and the way-stations were a ploy to encourage them to stay put, but it didn't work. In later centuries Kurds and Basques have been similarly hard to control by a central government.

It is challenging to make sense of the history of the near east with its never-ending Islamic Jihad and the associated propaganda on every side. There were / are Christian Arabs as well, which further confuses matters. The clashes continue and the archeologists, during their digs at the Antioch site, sometimes hear bombs falling on Syria. Antakya is only a two-hour drive from Aleppo.