We arrived safely with no hassles at the airport (we arrived at 2:30 am Netanya time, nobody seemed too interested in us or anything else). We rented a little sleeping room right in the airport in Amsterdam and slept nicely--it was a good break in the long flight so that we were not too exhausted.
Yesterday, our first day here, Trawnegan picked us up and brought us over to his apartment to see Christine and Eretz for the first time. Eretz is bright and happy, altho he didn't take to me right off--he preferred Geoff. We are becoming better friends now, I have trotted out my old "horsey rides" game.
Trawnegan and Christine have been working overtime getting their new apartment ready to move into--they actually moved just 4 days ago, there were a lot of repairs to be done. The apartment is spacious and light, they will do well here.
We had a lovely "Israeli breakfast", consisting not only of eggs, bread, and coffee, but also two salads, several different cheeses, olives, and fresh-squeezed orange juice. One was enough for me and Geoff with plenty for Trawnegan to nibble on as well. We ate it out in a plaza with folks walking by--lots to look at.
Netanya is a pleasant town--it reminds us of Mexico rather than Europe or the US. The weather right now is perfect, sunny and warm but not unpleasant. Today Geoff and I walked the length of the town and explored the Shouk, the huge street market. We have not yet been to the beach.
Last night we had dinner at the sisters house--which is an actual house rather than a flat. In addition to us and the 4 sisters, the Jacobsens were there (the couple who serve here with Trawnegan and Christine), plus a young family from the Galilee who meet with the church in Netanya and two brothers visiting from South Africa. Very enjoyable and full of life.
We are staying with a man who is an observant Jew--he is an American from Baltimore who moved here about 5 years ago and does his business on the internet. He keeps a kosher kitchen, which mainly means that there are completely separate sets of utensils for meat and dairy. We will just cook breakfast there, so all the foods we use are "neutral"--no bacon for breakfast, haha. We left with Trawnegan yesterday morning, and then Geoff remembered that he had left his sandwiches in the refrigerator. Trawnegan asked, what kind of sandwiches, and Geoff said, ham and cheese--a big double no no! So we rushed back to get them before Sammy realized that we had contaminated his kitchen!
So thank you for the many of you who prayed for us--we felt covered during the whole trip and especially in the airport.
Snapshot: Three men, an ultra-orthodox all in black with black fedora and side curls, a conservative in shirt and slacks with a kippah (small knit skullcap) on his head, and what looked like a kibbutznik, super-tanned and hatless in shorts and T-shirt, carrying on an animated conversation in the street.
Baby Eretz is the star of the trip! What a fabulous kid--he has gotten to know us by now, and we get to babysit quite a lot so that Christine can go to the meetings. He is 11 months old, happy, bright, inquisitive, and on the move. He is just on the verge of walking, loves to walk all over holding on to a finger. He repeats all sorts of sounds, knows MaMa and Abba (Trawnegan's papa name).
This weekend we went up to a conference in the Galilee--it was in a very (very) nice youth hostel, quite new, with an Olympic pool, meeting rooms, etc. About half the folks there were ones living here in the country, including both English- and Russian-speaking coworkers from several different cities, a large number of Russian-speaking families, plus several native Israelis. Also, there is always a week-long tour provided before the conference for saints from abroad, there were saints from the US (including Pam and Rick Ferrell from Tacoma), Canada, several European countries, the Philippines, China, Australia, South Africa, and probably a few others I have forgotten. I was amazed at how many people I knew from previous travels, conferences and trainings, plus our couple of dinners here in Netanya.
At the end of the conference, several people got baptized, including a native Arab Israeli--a wonderful brother who right after his baptism joined right in and broke the bread with the other brothers.
A couple of boys were playing with soccer balls, and Eretz lit up when he saw the balls. The Russian kids just love Eretz and spent a lot of time entertaining him. He and they both learned how to say "ball". I said to Trawnegan that that is officially his first word. Every time he saw the ball, he said "ba". They are a lovely group of kids who all know each other, the churches here get together frequently. Eretz is currently the youngest that I saw, but not for long. I could see that these would be his little peer group, he will grow up playing in Russian with these kids. All of the saints love Eretz--he is very comfortable being surrounded by adoring faces talking baby talk in Russian, English, and Hebrew.
Last night was the holiday Lag BaOmer commorating 24,000 students who died about 100 ad, possibly killed by the Romans. They build bonfires everywhere--this is one of the aspects that reminds us so much of Mexico. Every vacant lot, even highway meridians, had huge bonfires with a lot of teenagers running around. Everybody closes their house up so it won't get all smoky. This is the kind of thing you would never see in the US.
Sammy's house, where we have our room, is at the edge of Netanya, with a large field behind the building, so we were treated to maybe a dozen fires--one would burn down and then they would light another. There were some fireworks, and Sammy's dog was quite anxious--Sammy was not at home. We were in our room in bed, and the dog opened the door (she knows how to use a door knob) and crawled right under the blanket with us. We felt sorry for her and let her stay until Sammy came home.
Some have asked how we ended up at Sammy's. We needed to have a personal room and bathroom, and did not want to put additional pressure on Trawnegan and Christine in the middle of their move, so I searched on the internet for a room to rent for the month--that is how we found Sammy. He is a very friendly person just Trawnegan's age, he rents out a room from time to time, his wife and children are currently back in the US. He is full of information about Israel, Netanya, and Jewish practices in general--not to mention that he helped me to get my Blackberry unlocked so that I can put in a local SIM card and use the phone here for local charges rather than global roaming at $2 a minute.
Tomorrow Geoff and I take the bus to Jerusalem for a 4-hour tour of the West Bank. Trawnegan and Christine will meet us there afterwards and we will walk around the old city.
We miss you all but we can't say that we miss the Seattle weather--every day here has been perfect, even a light sprinkle now and then to cool things down.
Up To Jerusalem
Now we know why the Bible says the children of Israel went UP to Jerusalem. We went up from Netanya in the coastal plain to Jerusalem at 2600 feet--almost as high as Snoqualmie Pass!
Geoff and I took a small van-bus called a cherut to Tel Aviv where we transferred to a big bus up to Jerusalem. We first went on a tour of East Jerusalemand heard a lot about the different issues concerning that area. We had the tour van drop us off at the Damascus Gate into the Old City, and we plunged into the shuk (street market). We have never seen anything like it! It is a vast, seemingly endless warren of narrow covered passages, seething with humanity, filled with thousands of tiny shops selling everything from food to electronics. We wandered happily, learning not under any circumstances to make eye-contact with a shopkeeper--if we did, we got drawn right into his shop as it were by a huge magnet, and once in we found it incredibly difficult to get back out. I think we paid too much for a couple of things we didn't really want, but we got out pretty cheaply.
We bought cups of lovely lemonade with mint leaves in it off of a tray being borne by a boy who looked to be all of 6 years old. We know perfectly well that drinking homemade beverages is risky, but had no ill effects and the lemonade was wonderful.
Trawnegan, Christine and Eretz met us back at the Damascus gate and took us over to see the Wall (which is the last remaining piece of the retaining wall around the Second Temple compound, NOT, as some think, a wall of the actual temple itself). Unfortunately they were having a huge army induction ceremony in the plaza there, so it was very crowded. All the new recruits look incredibly young, and of course in Israel both men and women serve equally. Every time we enter any site, tourist, commercial or religious, we have to go through screening, almost like the airport although we get to keep our shoes on.
I find that I have no particular emotional or spiritual resonance with these sites--I am much more interested in the saints and the fresh, new church life. Geoff and I gave up visiting monuments and museums years ago. To hear all the saints singing Bro. Lee's last song, "God's Eternal Economy", in Hebrew, however, brings the tears to my eyes and gets my heart beating!
I did enjoy the "Garden of Gethsemane". Almost all of these so-called Biblical sites in Jerusalem are locations decreed by the emperor Constantine's mother--there may or may not be any historical evidence whatever that it is the actual site mentioned in the Bible. Anyhow, this place is on the slope of the Mount of Olives, and in a small, peaceful garden are several olive trees that are estimated to be between 2000 and 3000 years old--meaning that they were alive when Jesus walked this earth! They are incredibly gnarly, stumpy and twisted--it is not hard to believe they are that old. But out of those ancient, dead-looking stumps spring living branches full of leaves and flowers!
This was the only place in Jerusalem where it was not hard for me to imagine the Lord walking and praying. Jerusalem is one enormous traffic jam--and the hundreds of tour buses don't help at all. The traffic rules are Byzantine (probably quite literally, since Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman empire for many centuries) and of course the streets are all narrow and twisting. It was actually a relief to return back down to Netanya, where we had a long late supper in the plaza--French onion soup with a lovely crust baked right on top that was as light as a croissant. The plaza was full of families and folks out enjoying the balmy evening.
Every day we feel like we are getting a little more oriented. I finally bought a SIM card for my Blackberry, so now I have a local phone number and can communicate with the family as well as use the internet. Geoff and I are figuring out the public transportation--everybody was amazed that we made our way by ourselves from Netanya to Jerusalem, door to door, in 2 hours flat.
Church Life in the Homes
The last few days we have been enjoying the local church life. I believe the majority of the saints are Russian-speaking, with a large minority being English-speaking. They are all working on Hebrew to one degree or another, and the children who were born here are Hebrew-speaking (as Eretz will be!) We have had several groups of saints here at Trawnegan and Christine's--we have appreciated that their new apartment, which is about twice the size of their old one, accommodates a good number of saints comfortably.
I brought several small packets of my green tea from China with me for my own personal use. A couple of days ago we had several Russian families here, and I offered the tea as one of several beverage choices. They all loved the green tea from China, and one sister thanked me again as they were leaving, saying that it had been a long time since she had had really good tea, so I sent her home with my last packet! Actually I was so glad to have something special to offer the saints.
The conversation with the Russians is almost all in Russian--Trawnegan is fluent, and Christine's Russian also is way better than when we visited her in Russia--she looks very comfortable fellowshipping with the saints in Russian. Most of them know a little English and make conversation with us. There is one brother, Yura, who is a kind of inventive genius, who has been helping Trawnegan put his new apartment together. One of the families, who have a flat on the ground floor here in Netanya, was recently broken into and burgled. They were all laughing hysterically imagining devices that Yura could create to foil the burglars--my favorites were setting up a palm tree trap so that the burglar would be catapulted over the rooftops, and putting superglue on the window bars so that when they came home, the burglar would be hanging there outside the window.
Last night was the Lords Table meeting here in Netanya, the first meeting of the church I have attended. They meet in the apartment of one of the saints, in a perfect location just steps from the main square running from the shopping district to the bluff overlooking the Mediterranean. There were about 30 in the meeting, including folks from Tel Aviv, Haifa and Galilee. It was very dear and enjoyable. They do not have a morning meeting on Lords Day here because Sunday is a regular working day in Israel.
We drove up the coast day before yesterday to an 4000-year-old city, Akko (Acre). We walked around the ancient walls and took a boat ride around the battlements, imagining Paul arriving, departing, or just passing by on his travels.
Then we went on to the very northwest corner of Israel to some beautiful caves--we took the world's steepest funicular (so they say) down to the caves. The rock is the creamy-white Jerusalem limestone brightened by the encrusted salt, and the dancing, deep turquoise blue sea reflects onto the walls of the caves.
After the caves we went back down to Haifa where Trawnegan and Christine lived for the first 3 years in Israel. What a gorgeous city! It is much bigger than Netanya, on a lovely blue bay. Mount Carmel is a long, high ridge all along one side of the city. They showed us their apartment, almost at the top of Mount Carmel with a full view over the bay and on to the north to the Lebanese border and to the northeast to the Golan Heights. As we were driving around, they also reminisced about several bombings that happened while they were there. One bombing happened at a bus stop just feet from the apartment where they were just leaving the Lords Table meeting--one mom had just phoned her daughter to not meet her at that very bus stop because they were a little late ending the meeting! One of the brothers was among the first to arrive at the scene and pull dead and wounded out of the mangled bus and begin first aid. Anyhow, now everything seems perfectly normal, the buses are full and the streets are populated with strolling families.
We had a light meal at one of their favorite places in Haifa eating delicious filled pastries called bureckas and headed back to Netanya. Today when we woke up it seemed 10 degrees warmer than yesterday--Trawnegan says we should expect the beginning of hot weather any day. Thank goodness they have air conditioning here, so we are all cool and comfortable as long as we don't venture outside.
Peacocks, Cranes, and Orchids
We have determined NOT allow Trawnegan to run us all over Israel every day, so yesterday we had a slow start and went to an orchid park near Netanya that is run by a kibbutz. The orchids are grown in a huge covered space where the temperature and humidity are maintained year-round. They say that they have 17,000 orchids, and I have no problem believing it--they were everywhere, climbing up and down the walls, peeking out from under other tropical foliage, hanging over our heads and hiding under our feet. Within this huge dome they also have many tropical birds, so there are always appropriate jungly sounds in the background--not to mention peacocks calling themselves to our attention with hoarse unlovely shrieks. In addition to orchids, peacocks, and multitudes of parrots, there were many carnivorous plants, berber sheep, reindeer, and a couple of mazes. The day was very hot, but we were cool and comfortable in the park.
Today we all drove into Tel Aviv. Trawnegan had morning fellowship with the saints who have been living there for 6 or 8 months--they will take the table for the first time this month on the 22nd, the day we leave Israel. So Trawnegan dropped us off at the campus of Tel Aviv University while he fellowshipped nearby. It is a large, beautiful campus--we wandered happily, had expressos at the campus cafe, and enjoyed an exhibition on wedding traditions in the university museum.
Then Trawnegan picked us up and took us to the flea market--Geoff and I were in bliss! We had a delicious lunch there--every meal we have had, almost, has included shawarma, the huge stacked skewers of meat constantly grilling off from which they shave your portion, and many different salad choices. The flea market was even better than the shuks, although there was just as much sales pressure--I have no idea how we got away without buying a hand-woven rug for our house--I still wish we had bought it!
Then we went on into Old Jaffa, which connects right to Tel Aviv, although around the turn of the last century there were miles between the two villages. Jaffa is the "Joppa" in Acts where Peter was staying with Simon the Tanner. We did find the "House of Simon the Tanner", but we are suspicious of all such labels. This is another 4000-year-old town, so again it was not in the least difficult to imagine Peter praying on the roof of one of these dwellings. The old city climbs steeply down the hill to the harbor, with many twists and turns. On the way back up, Christine started talking to a Philippina who was cleaning an empty house to get it ready to sell--we ended up getting to tour the whole house, which was a lot of fun. It had all the modern conveniences as well as some oriental luxuries such as a huge sunken bathtub/jacuzzi.
Trawnegan and Eretz surrounded by a crowd of Bedouin kids who were in Jaffa with us--they were quite rambunctious and a lot of fun to watch--some of the braver ones came to say "Hello" to us, but that was the totality of their English.
From the top of Old Jaffa looking up the coast into modern Tel Aviv.
Israel seems to be in the midst of an economic boom--construction cranes bristle everywhere in Netanya, and even more in Tel Aviv. I haven't seen this many cranes since Shanghai, although of course the cities are only a tiny fraction of the size of that mammoth city. Trawnegan says that Israel has not been hit very hard by the recent economic decline suffered by most of the rest of the world. Both along the coastline and inland in the suburban areas stand ranks of brand-new, high-rise, expensive-looking apartment buildings--I am always asking, who is going to live in all these apartments?
So, greetings again from all of us here in sunny Netanya--I hope you Seattleites are doing something about your weather before we get back!
We are winding up our time here in Israel: tomorrow we pack, and leave for Amsterdam Saturday morning at 5:30am.
A couple of days ago we drove over to the Dead Sea, the lowest point of land on earth. We enjoyed bobbing like corks in the solution (Trawnegan says that, technically, it is no longer water since it is 50% salt). I was disappointed to find out that they do not sell Dead Sea salt to use as table salt. We also scraped black goo off the bottom and spread it over all our uncovered parts. We saw Russians who were coal black from hair to sole except for their bathing suits.
On the way there, we stopped at an Arab village. They were all pathetically eager to receive American tourists--almost everybody we encountered said, in English, Welcome to our city. The city reminded us of the proverbial dusty Mexican village--poor, slow-moving, and incredibly hot. We had a wonderful lunch consisting of multiple salad and meat dishes, tended by the restaurant owner himself. We visited ruins at the edge of town, rode a cable car to the top of a nearby mountain, visited a gift shop located in a cave, and came back down the mountain (finally!) with our very own hand-woven carpet. I think we bought our carpet there because we felt so sorry for those people who were so eager to please.
Today we drove up the coast to Caesarea, which is only about 45 minutes from Netanya.
There are a lot of ruins, some from the original construction in 25 BC or so by Herod (of Biblical notoriety). The Bible did not tell us that Herod was, among other less savory characteristics, an incredible visionary and architect. He built an artificial harbor and a city, complete with theater, religious edifices, palace, baths, and hippodrome, all in 12 years. The city was subsequently occupied by Byzantine Christians, Arabs, Crusaders, and Ottomans, all of whom diligently tore down a lot of what their predecessors built in order to construct something more to their own personal liking. The two millennia have left a lovely ruin built mostly of warm, golden stone. The two arms of the harbor curve around the deep blue of the Mediterranean, creating a lovely, picturesque setting. Which may be why we encountered four different wedding parties, brides and grooms in full regalia, being photographed against the ancient backdrops.
Eretz continues to be a surprise and a joy.
Yesterday was his 1st birthday--we all celebrated in a local chocolate restaurant. He particularly loves balls--he has several, including a real soccer ball that Geoff picked up for him. He loves to play catch, and to run around kicking a ball (he still has to hang on to a finger in order to "run around", he is always dragging one of us around). We went to a playground in the afternoon, and you could tell that he was just dying to run around with the older kids--he slid on the slides, got pushed on the swing, and rode the teeter-totter. How will we be able to get along without him?
Bicycles, Canals and Coffeeshops
Saturday morning at 2am the whole family loaded into the car to deliver us to Ben Gurion airport for the beginning of our return to the West. Passing through the several checkpoints at the airport was not difficult or stressful, just s-l-o-o-o-o-o-w and tedious. Dear Trawnegan and Christine, with a sparkly Eretz perched on his shoulders, wanted to wait for us to get through all the lines before the final goodbye, but at 3am it seemed that they all needed a good night's sleep, so we finally persuaded them to head back home. It was just as well, because once we made it through all the lines, we had just enough time to get to our gate and board the plane--there would not have been time for more than one more hug. (Geoff wore his FREE PALESTINE t-shirt under his outer shirt on the theory that they would be least likely to search the actual clothing we were wearing; in the event, they didn't look at a single thing.)
A person's true nature is revealed when they are aroused in the middle of the night to deliver somebody to the airport. We four adults barely had four words total, but Baby Eretz was as happy and chatty as ever--he is a truly fun baby, full of life, joy, and energy, even at 2am.
We landed in Amsterdam without further incident, took the train into town, and bought a 24-hour canal boat ticket. Our host was not there when we arrived, so we went to the Coffeeshop around the corner to get a cup of coffee and use a phone. Ha ha. Turns out that "coffeeshop" is the euphemism for a marijuana dispensary (you go to a Café to get a cup of coffee). They handed us a large plasticized menu listing 10 or 15 varieties each of marijuana, hashish, and funny baked goods. We got a good laugh, and they kindly let us use their mobile to contact our host. (Apocryphal sidenote: We were told that, since smoking tobacco indoors is now illegal in Amsterdam, the police check the "coffeeshops" to make sure that only non-tobacco substances are being smoked.)
We rode the boat to our B&B, unloaded, then continued to explore the canals, jumping off whenever we found a flea market. We were heartbroken the next day to find out that there were no bicycles left to rent--our hearts were set on bicycling through Amsterdam!
We had two wonderful days--the weather was warm and clear, the streets thronged with pedestrians, bicycles, and even the occasional automobile. There is actually a 3-story bicycle-only parking garage next to the main train station! Our B&B was SO Amsterdam, up a steep, winding ladder/staircase to a tiny, fully equipped apartment--it had a big bed, a tv in the wall, a combined bathroom/shower like on a boat, and 2 tiny stools to perch on to eat. We were in the perfect neighborhood, a block off one of the main streets, walking distance to everything we wanted to see.
There were several street concerts going on, not to mention one canal concert--a flotilla of open boats supporting the band, followed by dozens of boats overloaded with singing, dancing young people.
When we got here to the airport, they told us that "Delta had downsized the plane", so about 60 of us got bumped. So I am using the lunch voucher they gave me to write to you in the internet cafe, waiting to find out our fate. They said that we would all get a voucher for 800 Euros (or 600 Euros cash) as compensation, so I am more than willing to hang around the airport for a few more hours. Actually, what I would like to do more than anything is go back into Amsterdam and rent some bikes!!!
The stars of Kalamazoo’s Quarter System have always been the three large off-campus programs: Career Service, Foreign Study, and the Senior Individualized Project. It goes without saying that the reputation the College enjoys today has probably come from the implementation and development of these programs.
But the Quarter System opened the door to smaller off-campus projects as well, such as team trips, and though these smaller projects were less developed and more unpredictable, they were still fully capable of delivering a significant impact on student’s lives.
I was a member of the K-College Baseball Team, when it left in March 1962 on its first-ever spring trip. (To give some perspective: 1962 was the year Walter Cronkite began his career as CBS Anchorman, the year Johnny Carson started the Tonight Show, George Clooney, born in Louisville, one of our stops, was 10 month old, and March 19th, the day of our first spring trip baseball game, was the day Bob Dylan released his first record album.)
Our schedule called for six games in one week against two teams: Howard College (now Samford University) in Birmingham, Alabama and Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia. We travelled by car, with Ray Steffen and “Swede” Thomas as our coaches/chaperones.
The Quarter System had started that fall, with all its attendant highs and lows. We were exhilarated to be at the forefront of a daring educational adventure, as promoted by the school and the national press, but by March, that exhilaration was losing steam and the stress of the shorter, 10-week term, the nagging feeling that a report or paper was imminently due, was beginning to wear us down. Most everyone on the team was looking for a changed venue, a place where we could relax and de-compress.
We arrived in Birmingham on the 19th, and Howard, being on the semester system, was still in session. Students lounged about campus in their shirtsleeves, talking and reading. To us ballplayers, just arrived from snow-covered Kalamazoo, it might as well have been Honolulu. We immediately wanted to break out the bats and balls.
Howard put us in the basement of the basketball field house, and during the four day stay, a flu bug hit the team, causing some late night visits to the bathroom. But, in the end, there was no epidemic and only a handful of members were affected. Before the trip was over, the flu was all but forgotten.
Howard’s spring football practice was being held on an adjacent field at the time, and each day, before our baseball game, the head football coach would come into our locker room, take a seat on the end of a bench, and carry on an animated conversation with our coaches or any players who happened to be standing around. I remember him as a small, loquacious man, very likeable and eager to learn all he could about the sports scene up north.
I’m sure introductions were exchanged and then forgotten, so it wasn’t until years later that most of us realized he was Bobby Bowden. The only trouble was we had met Bobby Bowden before he was Bobby Bowden. A few years later and access to him would not have been so easy. There’s now a statue of him on the Florida State campus, in Tallahassee, honoring him as one of the winningest football coaches in America.
Before leaving Birmingham we managed to catch the annual inter-squad game concluding spring football practice. Bowden had adopted the “swarm defense” developed by “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama, sixty miles to the west, and it was on prominent display in the inter-squad game. (Alabama would recruit Joe Namath that year and go on to win the NCAA Championship in ’64.) Several players on the K baseball team watching the game also played football, including Frank Stuckey, Fred Reuer, John Persons, Don LeDuc, Eglis Lode, Tom DeVries, and John Miller. Later that year, they were all members of the undefeated 1962 K-College Football Team. Following the game, an impressed Coach Steffen opined that Howard’s football team was probably on a par with Western Michigan.
Coach Steffen’s observation at the football game was not the first time the subject of Western Michigan University had come up on the trip. Western Michigan, under Coach Charlie Maher, had been a collegiate baseball powerhouse in the late 40’s and ‘50s and Western’s Hyames Field, the prototype college ballpark, built in 1939 by the WPA, had been host to the first two college world series in 1948-49. Altogether, WMU had gone to the college world series six times and was runner-up in 1955. It came as quite a relief to the Howard baseball players, then, to find out we were not Western Michigan, as they had feared, although we were from the same town.
We had stayed over in Birmingham for the football game, so we left early the next morning in order to play a doubleheader with Oglethorpe University, in Atlanta. For some reason, probably because the pitchers all had sore arms (I have a sore arm just thinking about it) we only played one game, which concluded our spring trip at five games.
We had one more stop before returning home, though, and that was in Louisville for the Championship Game of the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament. The final weekend of the tournament is, among other things, a big coach’s convention, and I’m sure Coach Steffen had long since marked it on his calendar.
None of the players had tickets to the game, but we did crash the victory party for Cincinnati after the game, held in the ballroom of a big downtown hotel. We were all impressed by how tall and imposing and well-dressed the basketball players were. I looked around the room for the great Oscar Robertson, to no avail. (Robertson was the most celebrated college basketball player in America. In his three years at Cincinnati, he had set a new all-time collegiate scoring record. He had taken the Bearcats to the final four, in vain, all three years. He graduated in 1960 and the coach, George Smith, retired. Cincinnati then promoted freshman coach, Ed Junker, to varsity coach and Cincinnati’s next two teams won national championships, back to back. This was just before John Wooden and the great UCLA teams. No school had ever won consecutive titles. 1962, in Louisville against Ohio State, was the second one.)
All five spring trip games were losses, four by double digits, but the regular season didn’t turn out too badly. We tied for second in the MIAA, with an 8 and 4 record. Besides the spring trip, we played 2 games each at U. of Detroit and Central Michigan, losing all four. Our overall record then, counting the spring trip, was 8 and 13.
I think most of the players on the trip would agree that it had been a success, despite the losses. We had travelled to a warm, sunny climate, which gave us a full week away from the classroom to play ball and unwind. And what’s more, the trip had given us an intimate look at the inner workings of three major college sports.
But that was on the surface. Underneath, other forces were at work. We had been briefly stepped into, if not a foreign culture, then at least an alien one, and had seen and done things that would quietly affect us for the rest of our lives. Perhaps the best summation comes from Tom DeVries ‘65:
“I do remember the southern hospitality. They were very nice to us as were the players and students on the other campuses we visited during these trips. I have often wondered, if the situation were reversed, would we have been as gracious and hospitable in our treatment of a visiting team. I don't know if "southern hospitality" exists north of the Mason Dixon.”
Well, I completed my jury duty on Friday. It was quite an experience—I asked the Lord to give me this experience, the He did so in spades.
After the jury was selected, we heard the prosecution's case. This concerned a shooting in the central district last summer. The prosecution's case was that the accused, a 33-yr-old man, in concert with his brother, shot a woman because he believed she had been involved in the shooting of a friend the previous week.
Most of the prosecution witnesses were doctors and police describing the scene, their investigations, and her treatment. She was shot from the back through her neck without hitting anything vital, then from the front in the groin, severing her femoral artery. She ran from the scene and hid in some bushes and basically bled out right there—the medics were there within 5 minutes, and she had stopped bleeding by then—she had lost 80% of her blood, and died twice on the operating table. Nonetheless she survived, albeit with permanent scarring and potential pain from the artery reconstruction for the rest of her life.
She was forced to testify by the prosecutor—they actually arrested her in order to get her to testify, there is such a code against working with the police in that area. She had been barhopping and drinking—she had a memory blackout for the preceding hour, and her blood alcohol level at the hospital about an hour after the shooting was .24. She did not know the shooter personally but had seen him and argued with his brother earlier that night, and she id'd him as the shooter.
There was a surveillance video from the nightclub outside of which the shooting took place—it showed various people moving around, and from verbal descriptions, you could tell who some of the people were, but you could not see any faces, just general clothing and movements.
There was one other witness, a non-involved passerby who pulled over to the side of the street when he heard shots and saw the defendant running “purposefully” past his car. He was a real character, and the funny thing was when the defense attorney asked him, How can you be so sure who you saw running by your car in the dark at 2 am? He replied, I wish I could do his voice for you, “Why, his face! He was so good looking—like a model!” We all realized that he was a homosexual and that he had taken a second look—this, of course, strengthened his testimony.
The defense essentially had no witnesses—this guy's poor mother flew out from Massachusetts to testify for him, but had no information that would exculpate him in any way.
The bizarre thing about this case is that there were probably 15-20 eye witnesses there outside this night club, but not one person came forward for either the victim or the defense, including 3 bouncers standing outside the club.
One of the frustrating things for the whole 2 weeks was that we could not talk at all about the case either with one another or with anybody else—we all felt like we were going to pop, it was a big relief just to be able to talk.
So when we got the case, it seemed that there was no clear piece of evidence tying the defendant to the crime—the victim's testimony seemed suspect because of the memory loss and blood alcohol level. We started out 50/50 for conviction and “reasonable doubt”--I was one of the latter. We started to go through our notes from the testimony detail by detail and went home for the day.
That night when I went home, I prayed that the Lord would give me peace one way or the other—it seemed that the testimony was just a little too flimsy to convict. The next morning, I woke up knowing that we were going to convict, and feeling at peace about it—I still had doubts, but not enough to hang the jury. It was a terrible weight to have the lives of human beings in our hands—and I couldn't even pray and fellowship with the other jurors! I texted my prayer partners asking them to pray for me.
That morning, Friday, we continued through the evidence line by line, and we re-watched the video—this time on a larger screen and closer to the jury box. Because we had already seen it a number of times, we were able to focus on specific movements of specific people, watching to see if one side or the other was verified.
I felt like I was looking at a 1000-piece puzzle for which I only had about a third of the pieces, but that every tiny piece of information that we gleaned from everybody's notes from the testimonies and from the video, without exception, fit the testimony of the victim rather than that of the accused. There literally was not one single piece of evidence supporting the defense claim.
When we took our second vote, after re-watching the video, everybody voted (reluctantly) to convict. We all felt miserable because the evidence seemed so full of holes—one woman cried, and nobody looked happy or satisfied. We went back out to the courtroom after they had gathered everybody back together, and the bailiff read the verdict of guilty (3 counts: Assault 1, Firearm, and illegal possession). I thought I was going to throw up.
Then, when we went back into the jury room, the prosecutor and lead detective came back to talk to us, and boy, did the lights go on! Now they were able to tell us all the stuff that they were not allowed to mention during testimony. Turns out this guy has 17 previous felony convictions—seventeen!!! And not only that, his brother had already pled guilty to Assault 2 for aiding the crime!!!It was a huge relief, in that the doubt because of seeming lack of evidence went away. We couldn't believe that we had gone through so much agony, but it surely was a relief from the terrible fear that we were making a mistake.
On the good side, they told us that the victim has moved out of the old neighborhood and has made positive changes in her life—the detective called it her “come to Jesus” moment. I have been praying for her and for the defendant—they both have an opportunity to come to know the Lord.
So, I have had my jury experience that I have always wanted—I know now that it is not fun or pleasant to sit in judgement on your fellow human beings—you feel so frail, so fallible, and the system works against you as much as with you.
I got called to jury duty this week! This is one of the experiences I have always wanted to have in my life, on my “bucket list” so to speak, so I was very excited to be chosen. They called a pool of 62 potential jurors and asked us a lot of questions. First they excused those for whom it would be a financial hardship to serve for 2 weeks, which is what they estimated the length of the trial would be. I was very interested to hear how many people had been impacted by the current recession—several who were now the only working one in their family, and even a couple who had just started a new job after months of joblessness and didn't want to risk their new employment.
Then they asked us questions about how we felt about various topics—a lot of questions about guns. I noticed that all the opinionated people got let off in the second round. I was asked two questions, and both times my answer was that I would need more information before I could answer the questions either way—I guess they liked those answers, since neither side eliminated me.
I was also interested to see that the jury ended up entirely white. There were NO black people in the original pool of 62—there were only a few in the whole room of 200. The pool of 62 had maybe 1 or 2 Asians and a couple of light-tan-skinned people of perhaps Philippine extraction, but none of those was chosen. I suspect I am probably the oldest person on the jury—there is only one other retired person, the rest are all folks who work for firms who still pay them while they are on jury duty—turns out corporate America mainly supports the jury system, most of the self-employed folks got off for financial hardship.
We are 3 men and 10 women including the alternate juror who will be randomly selected and excused once the trial is finished and the jury is ready to begin deliberations. There is general conversation among us, but we are not yet allowed to discuss the case before us. I mostly sit with my eyes closed to rest them before we go back into the courtroom--I find the overhead fluorescent lighting in the courtroom to be very irritating.
Both in the jury room and in the jury box in the courtroom, we have very nice office-style adjustable chairs with armrests. Many of them still have the tags hanging off, so they must be fairly new. The courtroom is small and has 4 rows of cushionless pews for any observers to sit in—I am more than grateful that I do not have to sit in a pew!
Our jury room is on the west side of the 8th floor of the county courthouse downtown, so we have a wonderful view out over Elliot Bay to West Seattle. Yesterday was a somewhat sunny day, so at times I was able to stand in a sunbeam in the window. At times we get put into the jury room and just left there—we have no idea what is happening outside, and we are not allowed to open the door until our bailiff comes to let us out. Once it turned out that there was a fire alarm that affected all the floors below us, we just got left in our room. It reminded me of once at county jail when there was a lockdown—I got stuck in the lobby, but another person got stuck between the inner and outer glass doors for more than an hour.
I like going into the county courthouse—it is in the grand old style with lots of decorative sculpture and institutional materials such as marble and polished wood. King County got renamed for Martin Luther King some years ago—a token renaming if there ever was one, nobody remembers who King County was originally named after—so now there are murals on the floor and walls representing King and other freedom-fighters so to speak, womens suffrage, equal voting rights, etc.
I walked up to our wonderful Koolhaus library, a multi-faceted glass structure that from the outside looks like a huge half-buried diamond, and from the inside brings all of downtown and the sky right into the interior--what an experience it is, I never tire of it! I like to sit in the Living Room and relax.
There are a lot of fun little restaurants up and down 3rd avenue—I have eaten lunch at a different one each day. Yesterday I had excellent barbecue at the tiny Hole-in-the-Wall on James. The streets of downtown Seattle are filled with colorful, interesting characters, of course—I have noticed, for instance, several coonskin hats with the little feet hanging off the sides as well as the tail down the back—a new fashion??? On a chilly day I will be walking down the street with my Goretex parka zipped and hooded, and will pass somebody in knee-length pants, sockless feet in sandals, and bare arms.
Every time I enter the courthouse I have to pass thru security, but thank goodness I don't have to take my shoes off! With my Blackberry and MP3 player, I don't feel so cut off—I can read and respond to my email and phone calls during the breaks, and can listen to the news on the MP3, which has an FM receiver. I have all my church CDs on the MP3 as well as the current full-time-training messages, so I am well-supplied with everything except privacy.
The county gives us bus passes, so I park the car at the park-&-ride in Shoreline (so I can pick up Jakob when I get home in the afternoon). I catch an express bus that gets on the freeway, so the ride is no longer than if I drove and a lot less stressful. The bus is (relatively) comfortable, clean, and not overcrowded, altho there are usually a few standing by the time we get on the freeway. It is an articulated bus, I sat in the bendable middle once because Jakob wanted to know what it was like—it was a little disconcerting when we went around the corner, almost like a slow-motion carnival ride, the back half seemed to swing about 90 degrees, altho in actuality is was us in the front half who were turning. But those are the least comfortable seats, so now I sit elsewhere.
We arrive in the downtown bus tunnel, which is also fabulous, large, well-lighted, and attractive. I go up the escalator and end up right across the street from the courthouse—faster and much less stressful than driving and parking—not to mention way less expensive, since my bus ride is free. I see the notices for the LINK light rail that is supposed to open this year that will take us on from there to the airport. It's hard to believe that, after all these years, we won't have to drive to the airport any more! We will be able to catch the express in Shoreline or Bothell to the tunnel downtown, transfer to the LINK, and be whisked to the airport!
I will be very eager to tell you about the trial when it is all over—we have already had some very interesting testimony. That will be another story.
We’d always been ardent followers of Seattle travel writer, Rick Steves, and his “backdoor” approach to Europe. But by 2003, the dollar was already losing ground to the Euro, and we were in the market for something new.
We arranged a short visit to four colonial mining towns in Mexico’s central highlands: Queretaro, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas. This area of Mexico contains a wealth of culture and history, and each city had played a prominent role in Mexico’s struggle for independence from European rule. Unfortunately, our knowledge of Mexican history, like that of most Americans, was embarrassingly inadequate, and we spent much of our time at the museums and monuments on the trip just trying to get up to speed.
Nevertheless, the month-long trip left an overall positive impression. We came away convinced that Mexico, and probably the rest of Latin America too, held cultural dividends to rival Europe’s, but at far less cost.
Our favorite city was Guanajuato, and in intervening years we’ve returned there several times. It wasn’t until October 2006, however, that we were surprised to learn that Guanajuato had a connection to Kalamazoo College.
But before discussing that, let me first introduce Guanajuato. Most Americans only know Mexico by her beach resorts and border towns, but a brief description of Guanajuato, or any of the highland towns we visited, reveals a land of vastly more historical depth and cultural sophistication than can be demonstrated by any beach resort.
. . .
Guanajuato lies in a rugged mountain setting at the geographic center of Mexico about four hours drive northwest of Mexico City. With 6,000’ of elevation and 21’ N latitude, she has, arguably, one of the most favorable year-round climates in North America. Colorful buildings climb the town’s steep hillsides, making almost any cityscape, from any angle, truly lovely, especially at night. Guanajuato is a favorite tourist destination among Mexicans, and is known locally as the “Jewel of the Americas”.
Silver was discovered in 1552 shortly after the conquistadors arrived, and the town grew up around the mines. A full fictional account can be found in James Michener’s epic novel, “Mexico”. Guanajuato mines eventually supplied over 30% of the world’s silver, and are still in production today.
Early mining wealth led to the construction of lavish haciendas and public buildings, and today, Guanajuato has over thirty-five old churches, including three in the 18th Century Churrigueresque style. Well-preserved historical architecture is perhaps the most charming and magical facet of the city.
In 1987, UNESCO named Guanajuato a World Heritage Site, and considerable money has been spent in the interim rebuilding the streets and plazas to augment, as well as maintain, the colonial style. A recent National Geographic poll put Guanajuato 5th among World Heritage Sites in terms of tourist desirability.
The most unique architectural feature of Guanajuato, though, is her underground tunnels. Streets are too steep for cars, and the town’s miners have carved an underground labyrinth of tunnels for automobile traffic. Guanajuato has no stop lights, above or below ground, making the town a pedestrian’s paradise. Above ground, the streets are narrow and traffic moves slowly, and there is no problem crossing streets.
Music is an ever-present element of Guanajuato life, from street buskers and mariachi bands in the plazas, to chamber ensembles in recital halls. The excellent and well-supported symphony orchestra is a source of great civic pride. Guanajuato has also adopted the tradition of strolling student minstrels, called “callejoneadas” or “estudiantinas” in Spanish. The tradition began in the Middle Ages at Salamanca University, in Spain. The musicians, flamboyantly dressed in medieval student attire, lead processions along the town’s narrow streets and alleys, singing and telling stories and jokes in Spanish.
Festival Cervantino Internacional, which runs for three weeks each October, was started by the University in 1953 as a tribute to Miguel Cervantes. Plays or skits alluding to Don Quixote are presented at a multitude of venues throughout the city. Over the years, Cervantino has grown to include performances in all the arts from all over the world and is now considered the largest arts festival in Latin America. Each year a different country is featured.
In contrast with the US, where almost all public spaces are privatized, Mexico’s cities usually have a main square where civic organizations can advertise, demonstrate, or present artistic performances, such as Cervantino. Life in South and Central America, generally, is much more public and festive than in North America, for various reasons. Guanajuato, herself, doesn’t have one large square, like Zocalo in Mexico City, but she does have several smaller squares scattered along the town’s principal street, Avenue Juarez, giving her the versatility and capacity of a much larger town.
(While we were in the neighboring town of Zacatecas for a week in March 2003 during the run-up to the War, anti-war groups organized marches each afternoon, ending with speeches in the main square. Parade organizers noticed our “Norte Americanos Against The War” sign and asked us to speak in the square. We complied, although we had been told by other gringos to never get involved in Mexican politics.)
Guanajuato’s current population is about 100,000, including 30,000 students, and her street life, especially during the Easter festivals and Cervantino, can be vibrant and active. But the overall civic tone, like the central highlands of Mexico generally, is very family-oriented, and there is almost no crime.
San Miguel de Allende, sixty miles to the southeast, has become the focal point in Mexico for “Norte Americano” migration, having over 10,000 gringos in a town of 60,000. Fortunately, Guanajuato’s gringo population remains mercifully small, at around 200, and gringos are rarely encountered on the street.
. . .
Susan and I were back in Guanajuato in October 2006 for a break from Seattle weather and to witness our first Cervantino. (It was a fortuitous choice, because November 2006 was the wettest month ever in Seattle!) Shortly after arriving, we were surprised by an article in the “Chopper”, Guanajuato’s weekly news magazine that announced the University’s plans to republish a book by Peter Boyd-Bowman entitled, ‘El Habla de Guanajuato’. The article mentioned that the original publication had been in 1960, but said nothing about who Boyd-Bowman was or who he was affiliated with. (The book was actually an outgrowth of Boyd-Bowman’s 1949 PhD dissertation at Harvard and, in the words of Juan M. Lope Blanch, Mexico’s leading scholar in Spanish linguistics, was “the first investigation of a dialectal Mexican area made in a systematic and scientific way” (Lope Blanch 1962b; 456).)
Dr. Boyd-Bowman and Kalamazoo College were already known to our friends, because conversations at parties would inevitably turn to the question of how we became interested in Mexico and the Spanish language, and we would tell them about Kalamazoo, its Foreign Study Program and Boyd-Bowman. Also, on many of these occasions, I would add a story about Boyd-Bowman and English author, Hugh Thomas.
In the spring of 2004, Thomas appeared on CNN’s Book TV to promote his new book, “Rivers of Gold”, which covered the Spanish conquest of the New World. On the show (which other K alumns may have seen, as well) Thomas stated that he got most of the names of the conquistadors from some fellow named Peter Boyd-Bowman, though he didn’t know where he was from. I immediately wrote Thomas mentioning Boyd-Bowman’s career at Kalamazoo and that my wife had been one of Boyd-Bowman’s student interns in the early sixties who had helped research the names of Spaniards going to the New World. It makes a great story at gringo parties, since many of the ex-pats in Guanajuato are retired academics. The “Chopper” article simply reinforced the story’s legitimacy.
Back in Seattle, I called Dr. Boyd-Bowman in New York and told him about the “Chopper” article. (Boyd-Bowman had moved to the State University of New York in Buffalo in 1965 and remained there until retirement. He still resides there.) He said he was unaware of the republication of “El Habla de Guanajuato” and hadn’t received any advance copies. He was pleased, though, that his work was still considered important enough to be republished. He knew nothing about the Hugh Thomas-Rivers of Gold story, but thought that Thomas probably got the names from his Patterns of Spanish Emigration to the New World (1493-1580) SUNY Special Studies #34, 1973.
He said he first went to Guanajuato in 1947 to begin research on his thesis, and tried to return to Mexico each year, if he could. Later, he lectured at Guanajuato. Nothing was said about the city’s striking mountain setting or history, but he did remark on the interconnectedness of the mines above town. He said he was taken on a tour by one of his Mexican friends, an engineer, and they went down in one mine and came up in another. He was intrigued by that.
He said his time at SUNY had been very rewarding, especially the last twenty years, when he was a lecturer, as well as an administrator. He especially emphasized to me that his “secretaries” at both Kalamazoo and SUNY had been “very helpful” in his career.
Much of the conversation, of course, centered on the people and events we had known at Kalamazoo in the early sixties. He was sorry to hear of the passing of so many of his former colleagues, a subject I quickly moved beyond.
I was glad I had the chance to talk to Dr. Boyd-Bowman again after so many years. I remember him as one of the leading professors on the Kalamazoo faculty, who eventually rose to preeminence in his field. Over his career, he constructed a formidable encyclopedia of Spanish migration to the New World, especially as it took shape in the 16th Century.
British-born and Harvard-educated, he brought a delightful Old World charm to his Kalamazoo classrooms. He was also, day in and day out, one of the most elegantly dressed men on campus. That effort was probably wasted on Kalamazoo students though, since they had to work blindingly hard! For the students privileged enough to attend gatherings in his home, who can ever forget his happy, smiling children or his collection of toy trains.
The opportunity to get reacquainted with Dr. Boyd-Bowman is just the latest in a long line of pleasant surprises given me by that wonderful little Mexican mining town, that “Jewel of the Americas”, Guanajuato.
Zacatecas has everything I like. A UNESCO World Heritage site in the middle of the desert plateau of central Mexico, it is a delight of 17th and 18th century colonial architecture. Yet there is no “museum” feel about this city—its inhabitants are warm, lively, and very much engaged with modern life, Mexican-style.
Mexico has a reputation for being dirty, impoverished and crime-ridden, but Zacatecas is as clean and safe as any city in the world—in the morning we sloshed through the water of neighbors washing their stoops and sidewalks, and we followed wandering minstrels through the alleyways into the night with nary a concern.
The center of Zacatecas is its pink sandstone cathedral, rightly renowned as the finest example of the extravagant Mexican baroque style known as churrigueresco. In the late afternoon sun, the façade seems to glow with an inner light. Zacatecas’ handcrafted stonework still attracts shoppers and architects today.
There was a parade every day that we were there, political protest or religious-cultural celebration. Groups dress in colorful costumes, some with recognizable historical roots, others fantastical—we were surprised to see one group dressed in conquistador costumes. The daily demonstrations end with flags and speeches in the Plaza de Armas, an empty expanse enclosed by the cathedral and the Palaces of Government and Justice.
The place to see and be seen for breakfast or lunch is the Café Acropolis, on Avenida Hidalgo just south of the cathedral. The room is large and light, the coffee is terrific, and businessmen and politicians confer at the round tables.
Shopping in Zacatecas is marvelous. Shops are filled with genuine artisan items, making them as interesting as museums. The Mercado González Ortega, housed in a lovely 19th-century building south of the cathedral, used to be the central market in Zacatecas, but it has become an upscale marketplace. The items for sale there are beautiful (and expensive), but the feel of the open-air market has been lost. The tourist information booth and pay phones are in the entry on the west side.
Every evening there was a performance in the Plazuela Francisco Goitia just south of the cathedral. The audience sits on the wide staircase descending to the plaza, onlookers draped over high terraces on either side. We watched a city band performance, mimes, clowns, and assorted musicians. Families seem to come and wait to see what will happen.
The city is on an intense journey of self-renewal. The completely refurbished Calderón Theatre, across from the plazuela, reopened while we were there, and the cathedral was in the final stage of a process of restoration and cleaning. It seemed like work was going on everywhere.
If the area around the cathedral and Avenida Hidalgo is the showplace of Zacatecas, the beating heart is around the lush Jardín de la Independencia a couple of blocks to the south. Folks lounge around the plaza on tree-shaded benches listening to guitarists, with the fountain as background accompaniment. New shoeshine stands were being installed around the jardín while we were there.
Across the street is La Unica Cabaña, a huge, crowded taquería with its menu painted on the wall. The rooms have high arched colonial ceilings, contrasting with the gleaming stainless steel kitchen in full view. The décor is purely functional; service is fast and efficient. This is the place to get good food for a reasonable price and watch the locals stream in and out.
Just up the street is Arroyo de la Plata (Street of Silver), blocks of wonderful open-market browsing. Across the street on Calle Garcia de la Cadena, Huichol Indians sell their wares from tables and blankets. If you get here early, you can buy a cup of agua miel (honey water), the unfermented juice of the maguey plant, from earthenware jars carried on the back of a burro.
Not far south of the jardín is the Hotel Quinta Real, a unique four-star hotel built in a former bullring. The last part of an ancient aqueduct marches past the entrance to the hotel. This lovely hotel is a destination in its own right, as well as a wonderful luxury accommodation.
The big celebration of the year is called Zacatecas en la Cultura, celebrated during Holy Week. Streets, closed to traffic, overflow with markets, parades, and street performances.
There are plenty of bars and cantinas in this university town for evening entertainment, but the callejoneada is the uniquely Zacatecan way to party. Trumpeters and drummers leads the way, followed by a raucous group of merrymakers; the barrels on the back of the donkey now contain mescal, the fermented juice of the maguey. The whole group stops at large intersections to play, drink, and dance, then wends its way through the back alleys to the next rendezvous.
Callejoneadas are sponsored by hotels or the tourist bureau, but they are also part of weddings and any other excuse for a celebration. If you encounter one in the streets, it is always good form to join the party!
Silver jewelry and artifacts, on display throughout the city, recall the great silver mining history of Zacatecas. To buy hand-crafted silver jewelry at reasonable prices right from the artisan, take a taxi to the Centro Platero, the school where the artistic tradition of the area is passed on to the new generation. .
The tour of the Mina del Eden, a defunct silver mine, takes you right through a mountaintop. Small scenes illustrate the difficult lives and work of the miners, although the mine is now well-lit and well-fenced.
The mine exit is just a short walk from the entrance to the Teleférico, a cable car that swings from the mountainside to the top of La Bufa, a stony outcropping looming over downtown Zacatecas. The cable swings free from its beginning to the mountaintop terminal, riding hundreds of feet in the air and offering unparalleled views out over the city and its surroundings.
A museum and monuments at the top of El Cerro de la Bufa celebrate the capture of Zacatecas by Pancho Villa in 1914. The museum is a collection of fascinating photographs and artifacts. The bandidos with their enormous sombreros and bandilleras crossed on their chests are a familiar icon of the western cinematic myth; explanations are in Spanish, but hardly seem necessary—we feel that we already know this story.
Perhaps this history gives Zacatecas its cowboy flavor. The standard attire of the men gathered in the plazas is cowboy boots and hat. Large stores are dedicated entirely to boots or hats, and we learned much about the selection of these essential items of attire.
One of our favorite museums ever is the Rafael Coronel mask museum housed in a partially ruined ex-convent. Crumbling arches and lush grounds make the perfect setting for a picnic or a siesta; the masks are a fascinating historical, cultural, and artistic tour of Mexico.
For budget accommodations, be sure to contact the Lozano family in the Hostal Villa Colonial on 1 de Mayo, a couple of blocks behind the cathedral. Not only do they run two hostels, they also offer short- and mid-term apartment rentals around town. Ernesto and Gullermo speak English and are a great resource for all things Zacatecan.
We stayed in their historic two-bedroom casita on a tiny street just a block from the center of town. The main room is open to the stars, and the furnishings are antiques (or modern when appropriate, such as our king-size bed). It had an immaculate, modern bath and a somewhat primitive kitchen.
Zacatecas is known as the place everybody wants to return to because many people stop briefly on their way to someplace else. Access is easy, with direct flights from Chicago and Los Angeles several times a week. Once you get there, you won’t want to leave, and once you’ve left, you’ll be planning your return.
Music fills the air: musicians play for diners at tables spilling out onto the square, mariachi bands look for requests, guitarists meander, playing and singing to their own muse. Lights play off the temple, water plashes in the fountain, children laugh and scatter through the pathways overseen by parents and grandparents. In the balmy twilight, we are right where we want to be and deeply content.
Our destination is one of the great colonial silver cities of Mexico, Santiago de Querétaro, built by silver barons in the 16th and 17th centuries with wealth plundered from the nearby hills. Although it has over 600,000 people, you would never know it here in the historic center. Unlike the coastal vacation cities, these central highlands are deeply traditional, centered on family life. We are looking for a place to spend some of our retirement, and we find the conservative, family-oriented culture to be exactly what we want.
We lounge on a bench in the Jardín Zenea, the center of life in Querétaro. Every day we were there, the Jardín looked different; one day it bloomed with the awnings of vendors of traditional Lenten fare; the next evening, there was ballroom dancing around the fountain. This city is as clean as any I have ever seen, and the street vendors are colorful without being intrusive.
The heart of the city is a number of plazas connected by pedestrian-only streets, making for hours of blissful wandering. Querétaro is mostly flat and laid out in a grid, so navigation on foot or by taxi is relatively easy.
There are lovely, historic churches, homes and museums to visit, the architecture as interesting as the displays. The labels in the museums are mostly in Spanish, but it is not difficult to get a feel for the exhibits. A couple of the churches retain their ornate gilded interiors built during the silver-mining heyday.
Former mansions house business and government offices, so the doors stand open all day. They present a blank wall to the street, but through the great doors lies the courtyard, the secret heart of the house, with a gently splashing fountain or an heroic mural in the staircase. As businesspeople come and go, we wander in, basking in the ornate interiors, taking pictures. Often, somebody stops to welcome us to wander around and explore the building.
We breakfast at La Llave, just steps from the Jardín. Hand-hewn ceiling beams arch above tiles and greenery. Our placemat reads
To live is to arrive where everything begins;
To love is to go where nothing ends.
A fresh fruit cocktail accompanies bread so fragrant and light it is almost like angel food cake. Another of the great pleasures here is the fresh fruit juice, usually squeezed while you watch. Café de olla (coffee in a jar) is a concoction of boiled coffee, cinnamon, and aniseed, not to be missed by any adventurous coffee lover! Outside our sunny, open window, government and office workers pass by, unrushed, portfolios under their arms.
Querétaro has not been discovered by “norteamericanos” (U.S. & Canadian citizens), perhaps because there is no direct flight from the U.S. We flew into Mexico City, then caught the air-conditioned first-class bus just outside the arrival terminal for a comfortable four-hour ride to Querétaro; a rental car is another option. This city is a hidden treasure for anybody adventurous enough to suffer the mild inconvenience. Other nearby colonial cities, ancient ruins, and haciendas offer weeks of exploration.
Clothing is very conservative: we saw shorts only on the occasional tourist. Jeans, often pressed, are the nearly universal attire for businesspeople and matrons as well as teenagers. We wandered the streets day and night, feeling perfectly secure. A single friend living in Querétaro said that she had never felt unsafe or threatened.
When we visited in March, the weather was in the low 80’s. The rainy season from June through October is the favorite of many—visitors are few, the rains come like clockwork in the late afternoon of an otherwise sunny day, the desert grows lush with greenery. Bougainvillea blooms year-round, and in spring the jacaranda’s lavender haze punctuates the landscape.
Querétaro has festivals throughout the year, including the state fair in early December and the week before Easter in the spring. If you prefer a more sedate visit, as we did, March is an ideal month, before the crowds and hot weather. It is difficult to find publications in English, so be sure to bring a guidebook with you if you do not speak Spanish.
The three major events of post-colonial Mexican history happened right here. The War for Independence from Spain began here in 1810. The empire of Maximilian ended in a trial in the Theater of the Republic in 1867, and he was executed on Hill of the Bells, now a park and memorial. The modern Mexican constitution was signed in the same theater in 1917; the stage backdrop displays the names of all the signers, listed by state.
Mines around Querétaro are the source of fire opals, a semi-precious stone with a translucent crevice at its heart that flashes deep blue, red, green, or gold. A local friend recommended Villalon y Artesanos, a tiny shop on Andador Libertad, a pedestrian walkway off the Plaza de Armas. Carmen Diaz, the proprietor, will happily share her knowledge of opals with you.
This is not a place where you rush from sight to sight, checking off attractions in your guidebook. Querétaro is atmosphere: families in the plaza, bougainvillea-draped streets, colonial architecture that wafts you to another century, and through it all, everywhere, the music. The modern world roars around the periphery, but in the historic center, life feels very much as it must have for the last 300 years.
When anybody would ask me about my trip to China, I couldn’t figure out how to summarize it until one friend commented, “Wow, that sounds intense!” That’s what travel in China is—intense. The heat in August—over 100 degrees—was intense; the pressing crowds and constant noise intrusion—intense; the unearthly beauty of Yellow Mountain or the Li River valley—intense; watching a society jump directly from the 19th century into the 21st—intense.
We and several other students traveled with our Chinese instructor and members of his American and Beijing families.
Westerners are no longer interesting to the cosmopolitan Beijing folks, but one of our companions drew plenty of stares and crowds. After being asked for the umpteenth time to pose for a photo with some young men, Tabitha asked, “Why is everybody staring at me?” I responded, “Are you kidding? A tall, red-headed American girl wearing short shorts and a belly shirt—they think they’ve reached Nirvana!”
Our time in Beijing was spent with our instructor’s extended family. We visited their homes, and every evening was a banquet—I have never eaten so well in my life. The food was different—and better—than any Chinese restaurant I have ever visited. We talked freely, comparing our lives in the U.S. with theirs in the emerging China. Most aspects of personal life and finances were covered; Chinese politics, however, were still pretty much off limit. One said, “We let them live their lives, and we live ours.” These are urban, educated Chinese, and their lives have definitely expanded in terms of access to travel, information, and consumer goods. Many, however, feel that the society has lost its moral bearings.
They surely have their opinions about our politics as well. One day we were riding in a taxi, three westerners in back with a Chinese in front with the driver. The driver, probably assuming that we did not speak Chinese, asked his passenger, “So, those are Americans, eh?” She replied yes, and he said, “They seem like OK people—what’s the matter with their president?”
The thing that stunned me was the incredible pace of change. In Beijing and Shanghai, construction cranes are never out of view. Crowded freeways roar, billboards shout, neon glares. It is hard to fathom that just 20 years ago, this country virtually existed in the 19th century. I asked friends how this enormous societal shift has affected them. For the most part, people are personally doing better than they had during the Mao years, especially those young enough to enter into the capitalist fray with gusto, but they all regret the collapse of the social support system—health insurance, education and retirement are no longer funded by the state. It costs one family 10,000 yuan a year to send their son to a top high school in Beijing. In terms of earning and spending power, about equal to US $10,000 per year. They wondered if they had become as capitalist as the West—we responded that this is more purely capitalist than anything we have ever seen!
We went to see the former home of the last family member to have lived in one of the old residential neighborhoods in Beijing called “hutongs”, huge mazes of large courtyard houses separated by narrow, twisting alleyways. We discovered sadly that the entire neighborhood had already been razed. The last remaining hutongs have been cleaned, repaired, and sanitized, a Disneyland version of the old Beijing.
Like so many others during the Mao years, the family’s ancestral home had been divided among many families, one family per room. A great aunt still lives in an upstairs room. In the sweltering 100-degree heat of Beijing in August, the exterior looked primitive; what a treat to enter and find this charming lady in a comfortable room cooled by a huge air conditioner. All of China is like this—the primitive and the modern side by side.
Days began with a walk out into the already steamy morning to Ditan Park near our hotel, full of hundreds of people exercising, walking, eating and chatting. We joined a group doing Tai Chi among the trees—other areas had modern aerobic exercises with pop music for the younger set. We ate yogurt from little crockery jars, standing among local neighbors calling greetings to one another. We watched an artist painting huge calligraphy characters in water on the broad paved walkway. The characters of the preceding row were already fading as he was finishing the next. I like art, such as sand sculpture, that lives only for the present moment—surely this is as temporal as any art I will ever see.
We stopped for breakfast at an open-air café. A delicious breakfast of steamed buns, soup, and thin rice gruel for eight cost three or four dollars total. You can pay western prices at hotels and restaurants catering to westerners, but you can also live as the Chinese do, often just around the corner.
As our instructor guided us through Beijing, the narrative mostly consisted of how different it was from when he had been a young teacher here in the 1980’s. Work was going on everywhere, and many landmarks had disappeared since his last visit.
Two of my favorite spots are near the Temple of Heaven in the Chongwen District. The Hongqiao Market (also known as the Pearl Market or the Chongwenmen Market) is a great indoor bazaar. Each counter is individually run, and although there is some attempt to group like items, you are likely to find any given type of merchandise just about anywhere in the store. The third floor houses a well-known freshwater pearl market, where even dignitaries are taken to browse and buy. I am no expert on pearls, but I quickly learned to judge a string by its uniformity, color, and shape. The attendant re-strung my pearls with knots between each pearl while I waited. Total cost of my necklace: $15.
The Lao Beijing (Old Peking Noodle Restaurant), across the pedestrian bridge from the market, is old-style Chinese. Waiters greet each newcomer, as they have for centuries, with the shout “Ni lai le! (You’ve come!)” The room is huge, the floors bare; the constant din rises with each entry, then dips into the general clatter of waiters slapping the dishes of noodles on the tables. This restaurant seems the very personification of the Chinese word for fun, which translates literally as “hot and noisy” as in a crowded room.
Chongqing is the embarkation point for the cruise through the famous Three Gorges area of the Yangtze River. Escaping from our group, we explored downtown Chongqing. The center of town has been made into a very western-style mall. A couple of English teachers, their spoken English little better than my Chinese, helped me to get my camera repaired—the repairman opened the camera and fixed it right on the spot.
The next street over from the mall was the old China—crowded with people, small storefront shops and restaurants, no display windows or neon signs. The two worlds intersect in the “bangbang” men bearing long poles on their bare shoulders to carry purchases home for the shoppers—bicycles are useless in hilly Chongqing. I saw everything from groceries to televisions and furniture borne on the shoulders of these human transport systems—if the item is too large, two share the burden.
This was to be the last year before the new dam opened on the Yangtze, raising the river level by 135 meters. The scenery is wonderful, but we were more interested in the waning way of life displayed on either side of the river. Large signs high on the hillside mark the future river level; whole cities are being abandoned, the residents moved into shining new cities, sometimes directly uphill from the old, sometimes miles away, or on the other side of the river. Most poignant are the agricultural fields running right to the water’s edge. Cities can be rebuilt and may represent a material improvement for the residents, but these fields can never be replaced. Surely all the higher land had already been claimed for countless centuries—what will these displaced farmers do?
Every day the boat stops at some tourist attraction. The docks are created from stationary abandoned cruise boats inhabited by large numbers of permanent residents. We threaded our way through 3 or 4 of these boats before reaching the pontoon route to shore. Once on shore, we ran a gauntlet of trinket hawkers—often hundreds of them, leaving only enough room for us to squeeze between them in single file. I grew to dread the shouted “Hello! Hello!” reverberating in my skull.
I found the actual sites to be of moderate interest, and often preferred to stay at the dock area watching the workers and the boatmen. It was hard for the Chinese to understand that I had a much greater interest just watching ordinary Chinese people living their daily lives, such as a fisherman working with his cormorant. His wizened body was nut brown and clothed in a loincloth. He lived and worked aboard his small craft, carrying on his daily life in the midst of the tourists and the hawkers as if they were not even there.
I had to learn to judge the fair price for anything I wanted to buy—fair for me and fair for the salesperson. I had pressure from the hawkers, of course, to pay top price, but also from the Chinese we were traveling with to get the lowest possible price. In the hotel at the end of the day, we would brag about how cheaply we had obtained some item, or get laughed at for paying tourist prices. After viciously arguing one man down to the last cent, I realized that I had deprived him of an amount that was literally meaningless to me, but would have meant far more to him. After that, I tried to find a fair middle ground.
My Chinese was good enough to engage in simple conversation, and occasionally one of the salespersons would give up trying to force me to buy something and actually chat with me. On Fragrant Mountain, outside Beijing, I ran out of water. I engaged in a long contest with a seller at the top of the mountain; I was upset because he was charging several times the store price for a bottle of questionable water. Finally, when no new tourists were arriving, we introduced ourselves to one another and talked about where we were from. He finally gave me a bottle for only double what it cost at the bottom, “for the friendship between our two countries.”
We visited the Great Wall at Miantiaoyu. The wall is very strenuous, running up and down the hills, often as steep as a staircase. Every few hundred feet it passes through a guardhouse, inevitable occupied by a group of hawkers. One group of kids trying to sell me trinkets or postcards pursued me for at least 15 minutes. One by one, they dropped off for more lucrative prospects, but one young girl followed me to the end of our section of the wall and back—I couldn’t climb fast enough to get away from her. Finally she pled, “I get up at four o’clock every morning to walk for two hours to this wall, and I work here all day, and nobody wants to buy my cards.” Those were the only cards I bought the whole time I was in China.
Yellow Mountain, a landscape made famous in Chinese paintings, was blanketed in low cloud and drizzle. Each group was issued matching plastic raincoats—we looked like flocks of huge, strange birds. We only got glimpses of the distant peaks through breaks in the clouds, making the landscape even more mysterious and alluring. In the Pacific Northwest, if you meet any other hikers on the trail, it is considered overcrowded. In China, I had to learn to ignore the hundreds of other people around me at each outlook and just focus on the fantastical rock formations peeking out of the mist.
By the end of the tour, my weeks in China were taking their toll. The heat had finally fallen below 100, but was still exhausting and enervating. Bathroom facilities outside the hotels are at best barely adequate, and sometimes truly awful. Being from the wide-open western U.S., the continual crowds could not help but oppress. (Recently, I asked a Chinese visitor what his impression of Seattle was, and he said, “Empty.”) And every tour bus came with a guide with a little bullhorn. They seemed to be paid by the word, because they never stopped talking, and sometimes they sang, whether they could carry a tune or not!
On the way to the cruise down the Li River, exhausted and emotionally at my end, I wanted nothing so much as to grab the guide’s bullhorn and throw it out the window. But this fantastical landscape seemed to lift me out of myself to merge with the scene around me. The sounds of the crowds and the squawking bullhorn faded into the background. Winding among fantastical peaks springing straight up from the valley floor, the river does not even appear to be a landscape of this earth. As the boat rounds each bend of the river, mountains rise up out of the river as others fade back into the mist. The horizon seems the joining of earth, not merely to sky, but to heavenly places. I stood in the wind at the bow the entire trip, not wanting to lose a moment of this experience, storing every new perspective, every awe-inspiring vista in my memory.
I realize that my physical and emotional exhaustion contributed to the effect of that day, but I treasure it as one of the most special of my life. And whenever I look at a picture of the Li River, I remember afresh that day in the most unearthly place I have ever been.
In Search of Lost Time: A Proustian Tour of France by Susan Sanford
Looking through the arched entrance of the castle of William the Conqueror toward the Cathedral of St. Pierre in Caen, Normandy, I was transported back to this very scene at dusk, 35 years before, the fading light creating the striking illusion that the cathedral was not three-dimensional, but rather a flat backdrop painted on the sky. Marcel Proust, my metaphorical companion on this journey, in his masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, explores the relationship of time and memory to present reality. Near the beginning the narrator bites into a madeleine pastry dipped into a cup of tea, and, memory activated by the taste, is instantly and vividly transported back to the village of his childhood “…so in that moment all the flowers in our garden…and the water lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea (I,64).” Standing in this place that I had longed to return to for so many years, memories of my study abroad in Caen engulfed me, so that even as I was here in the now, I was also there, a former me in this identical spot.
I chose Kalamazoo College in 1962 because I figured the “K Plan” would enable me to fulfill my desire to travel, and indeed, study abroad in Caen in 1964-65 became one of the defining experiences of my life. My opportunity to return came during our tour of Paris and Normandy early last spring. In order to get ourselves off the standard museum-and-cathedral route, we designed our tour around the life and writing of Marcel Proust. He used the places of his own life as locales, so it is possible to visit the actual sites so finely and minutely described in his novel. Although I had been a French major at K and in graduate school, I had never read his 7-volume, 3,700-page work (previously translated as Remembrance of Things Past). I started reading several months before we left, lugged one of the hefty volumes on the trip with me, but didn’t finish until months after we had returned. Proust’s meditations on the nature of time, memory and the past affected not only our visits to the sites related to his life and writing, but also renewed and connected me to my own past in Caen. To any reader who has ever thought about embarking upon this work but has been intimidated by the length, I heartily encourage you to dive in! The English translation is excellent, and, in reading Proust, as in travel itself, the journey is the point; reaching the end is only incidental.
Our exploration started in Paris. Proust’s life and writing centered around the neighborhood near the Champs Elysées in the 8th arrondissement. A little footpath labeled “Alleé Marcel Proust” meanders through the park of the Champs Elysées past a small freestanding restroom with green-painted iron filigree, Proust’s “little old pavilion with its green trellis at the door,” a critical locale in the novel. Entering the building, we stepped into Proust’s turn-of-the-century Paris—both the building and the imperious attendant fitted Proust’s description. Walking the streets of Proust’s neighborhood, it was never difficult to evoke the author and his times among the 19th century architecture that formed the backdrop of his life. The home where Proust spent the first 30 years of his life stands on Boulevard Malesherbes, a short walk from the Champs Elysées. The famous cork-lined room where he spent many years towards the end of his life, writing his masterpiece, is in a building that currently houses a commercial bank on the nearby Boulevard Haussmann. A plaque identifies the building, and the room is opened once a week for viewing.
Proust’s grave is in the Père Lachaise cemetery, where many persons of renown (or notoriety) are buried, from 12th century Abélard and Hélöise to Jim Morrison. Our lone carnation on Proust’s elegant tombstone was not the only fresh tribute to the writer.
Our route to the Normandy coast brought us to Caen, and into my own “search for lost time”. I eagerly sought out the castle of William the Conqueror and that wonderful vista of the cathedral through the arched entrance. The castle walls give a panoramic view out over the city, dominated by the abbeys built by William the Conqueror and his wife Mathilda as penance for having married in spite of being first cousins, Abbaye aux Hommes (Men’s Abbey) to the southwest and Abbaye aux Dames (Women’s Abbey) to the east. On the campus of the Université de Caen, I found the cafeteria where student diners had been channeled up a staircase, pressing in from behind so densely that I once had a claustrophobic panic attack there. Vivid memories returned of the anxiety that attended my visits to that cafeteria. Once one of the K women entered the cafeteria with a scarf on her head, and the French students threw bread at her, shouting, “Chapeau! Chapeau!” And every time I partake of yogurt, unflavored and sweetened with white sugar, it wafts me back to my first taste ever, there in that same place. Today there is a new, broad, welcoming entrance; the old enclosed stairway, packed with pushing students, is only a memory.
We walked up the hill to the foreign study office and asked if André Heinz, the foreign study director in 1964, still lived in town. We were amazed to find that, although retired, he was still active in the foreign study program. We contacted him, and he invited us to lunch the next day in the faculty dining room with some other English-speaking faculty members. He was warm, gracious, charming, witty and interesting—everything one might expect the ideal Frenchman to be. He was delighted that we had thought to look him up. I doubted that he could really remember me among so many, until he asked, “Didn’t they used to call you Sue?” (a nickname I had not used since college days). I was stunned—he really did remember me!
After lunch, he took us on a tour of the World War II museum, Le Mémorial de Caen, just outside the city. His personal reminiscences of the war in Normandy made the museum come alive. It is built atop a German bunker—M. Heinz had been instrumental in suggesting this particular site. Designed as a monument to peace and tracing the roots of the Second World War beginning from 1918, the museum has since expanded to include various conflicts in the second half of the century. The façade is light-colored stone inscribed, “Pain broke me, brotherhood resurrected me, from my wound gushes a river of freedom” (my translation). The entrance is a dark, jagged slash through the quotation, graphically illustrating the utter devastation of war. The museum follows a ramp that spirals from the well-lit pre-war era at ground level downwards into ever-darker war and chaos.
Several items donated by M. Heinz are displayed in the museum, including his sister’s coat and dispatch case, with a bullet hole through the case where she had been shot at while carrying a message by bicycle. He told us a wonderful story about how he was instrumental in conveying information about the location of some German guns to the Allies prior to the Normandy invasion. A Norman farmer, angry at the Germans for taking over his land, paced off the coordinates of the big guns in his field and sent his small blind son to town to find the young English teacher, M. Heintz. He in turn was able to convey the information to the poised invaders using his radio set concealed in a large tomato soup can (now on display in the museum). The battleships, 12 miles out, destroyed the guns, one with a direct hit, no doubt saving many Allied lives. The coda to the story is that many years later, the British captain who had received the information was telling his side of the story to some friends. “I only wish I knew who had given us that terrific information,” he said. “I can tell you exactly who that person was,” exclaimed one of his hearers. “That was André Heintz, my teacher at the Université de Caen.”
I had so many reactions to my days spent in Caen. One was nostalgia, of course, for my “lost” youth. Another, however, was chagrin that I had been so little aware at the time of the value of getting to know a person such as M. Heintz. But, as Proust shows so beautifully, we could not be the persons we are today without having been those different persons we were then. The very indifference of youth made the opportunity for this delightful and surprising day. Walking those streets after so many years caused a strange conjunction of the student I was, eagerly seeking out every experience life had to offer, and the woman I am now, both enlarged and scarred by those very experiences. One moment I would be walking on an unfamiliar street, just a tourist, and then around the next corner, I would be flung back to those heady days. Driving past the park near the river, we passed the Hippodrome, a horseback-riding pavilion. I suddenly shouted, “I rode horses there!” I had completely forgotten, yet it all came in a flood, the irascible instructor, learning to ride English style, crying on my last day there. Those days have cast such a shadow on my life and on the person I have become. After having had an experience such as that provided by an undergraduate education at Kalamazoo College, it is impossible to be confined to a narrow, parochial point of view. Kalamazoo truly made the world my campus.
From Caen, we drove out to Cabourg on the Normandy coast, called Balbec in Proust’s novel. This town still has the turn-of-the-century atmosphere that charmed the author when he spent summers there. It is not one of the primary tourist stops on the coast, so it is virtually unchanged from his day. We toured the Grand Hotel eagerly, recognizing it from Proust’s descriptions. The sumptuous, almost baroque lobby is the setting for scenes of decadence; the classical façade fronting the beach is the background for visions of youth, freshness and innocence. As we dined on mussels at a small cafe nearby, the only tourists in the restaurant, the chef kept wandering back and forth by our table. Finally, unable to keep quiet any longer, he stopped and asked us how we liked the food. We exclaimed at its excellence, telling him that these were the best mussels we had had on our trip. He smiled and nodded briskly, receiving the praise as only his due, then returned to his kitchen.
The end of our Proustian tour was the tiny town of Illiers, in the Eure-et-Loire region near Chartres, where Proust spent vacations as a child visiting his aunt. This is the town that is so vividly recalled when the narrator dips his pastry into a cup of tea. Called Combray in the novel, the town has now officially changed its name to Illiers-Combray, hoping to capitalize on Proustian tourists. If they get any, they sure weren’t there when we were there. There were two hotels listed in the Tourist Information brochure; one was closed permanently, and the other was nearly full of long-term renters. We were, however, able to get a room for the night.
The center of town is relatively unchanged from the author’s time, except for the inevitable influx of automobiles. A brochure enabled us to find the various locales described in the novel. We almost expected the young Proust to come running around the corner in short pants. The home of Proust’s aunt has been turned into a museum that is open by appointment, so we had a private tour of the house. It sits at the conjunction of two streets, one now named Dr. Proust Street after the author’s father. In the novel, Aunt Léonie, based on Proust’s aunt, rules the household and keeps track of the activities of the townsfolk from her bedroom on the upper floor, overlooking the tiny intersection. Several of the rooms have retained their original furnishings. In others, the décor has been reproduced from the novel, such as a stereopticon like the one that captivated the narrator as a young child. The top floor houses a wonderful collection of photographs of Proust’s friends, relatives and acquaintances, many of whom served as models for characters in the novel.
From town, we were able to follow the two Sunday walks that come to represent the two social worlds that the narrator moves through. One way leads through a garden created by Proust’s uncle and named the Pré Catalan after the garden of the same name in Paris. The garden climbs past a fern-laden grotto to a lovely view out over the countryside, “that gently undulating plain where for mile after mile it met no rising ground…where, on hot afternoons, I saw a breath of wind emerge from the furthest horizon, bowing the heads of the corn in distant fields, pouring like a flood over all that vast expanse, and finally come to rest, warm and rustling, among the clover and sanfoin at my feet”. (I,204-5) The other way follows along the Loire, here a stream near its headwaters, towards the more aristocratic residences further out in the countryside, appearing very much to us like Proust’s “river flowing past, sky-blue already between banks still black and bare, its only companions a clump of premature daffodils and early primroses, while here and there burned the blue flame of a violet, its stem drooping beneath the weight of the drop of perfume stored in its tiny horn.” (I,235)
As we were wearily trudging back to the hotel, my husband said, “I hear a marching band”. Doubting, we turned back to the main street and, sure enough, a small band was marching up the street, followed by a large crowd of children and townsfolk. I asked one of the marchers what was the purpose of the parade. She told me this was an annual march organized among several small towns in the area for world peace and to draw attention to world hunger. She invited us to a potluck supper in the local town gymnasium. There we had a delicious feast with dishes from various parts of the world. What a treat to eat home-cooked food after so many meals spent in restaurants! There were displays of the problem of world hunger, and presentations by children and for children. Warmly welcomed by the participants, we talked French, ate, drank and laughed until our jaws and our heads ached. We returned to our rooms satiated and content, grateful to Proust for leading us to this captivating gathering.
When we told our friend that we were following Proust’s footsteps, it turned out that she was a docent of the Proust museum, and she suggested two more locations to visit that, because they are privately occupied, less advertised and off the main road, are much more difficult to find. We waded past the flooding Loire to peer through the hedge into the Castle Mirougrain, just as the narrator did. We visited the headwaters of the Loire at Saint-Éman, looming in the mind of the young narrator “as something as extra-terrestrial as the Gates of Hell, and which was merely a sort of rectangular basin in which bubbles rose to the surface.” (VI, 3) The 700-year-old Castle Villebon represents the highest aristocracy in the novel. It is a small, austere medieval castle that still bears the ducal crest on its gate and has a moat, a drawbridge, towers and crenellations. It is in a town even tinier than Illiers-Combray, far down a one-lane track. Seeing sights such as these, in the atmosphere of the wonderful philosophical speculation Proust brought to our journey, was the sought-for reward for inviting him into our itinerary.
By the end of our wanderings in this Proustian time-warp, all the strands of our journey, wandering in Proust’s life and times, my return to and re-discovery of Caen, and the delight of being in France, had braided into a satisfying and seamless whole, but time had one last trick to play on us. We arrived at the airport to return to the U.S., only to find that Europe had changed to daylight savings time one week earlier than the U.S., and we had missed our plane! Waiting a full 24 hours for the next flight, time, which had flown by, slipping through our grasping fingers, suddenly slowed to an imperceptible crawl, giving me time to listen to what Proust had been whispering to me. Seemingly, we lose our present moments, missing their sweetness even in the effort of trying to retain them. Then, later, finding ourselves in other circumstances and different rhythms, the bittersweet tang of that seemingly lost moment engulfs us once again, surprising us with the joy that we seemed unable to hold at the time. This is the gift that Proust still has to give to the world, the ability to appreciate and enjoy our own past as the very foundation of our present self, and therefore the ability to trust time to renew our present to us in the future, a gift no doubt just as critically needed now as in the time in which he wrote.