What would Pericles say?

by cheri sabraw

View of the Parthenon from our hotel

View of the Parthenon from our hotel

I visited Athens in May of 2010 to take a class on Alcibiades only two weeks after the fire-bombing of a downtown bank which killed three people, a violent act to let [then] Prime Minister George Papandreou know that some Greek citizens did not approve of his austerity cuts.

That act of violence was far different from the scheduled Greek demonstrations we were to watch unfold every day in the square that fronts the Parliamentary House–when men and women who had previously been lounging while playing cards under the trees or laughing and joking while drinking coffee would leap to their feet at the appointed time (usually mid-afternoon when most of us work),  look up to our hotel, where from the T.V. cameras and a slick anchorman recorded their scheduled wrath.

I’m sorry to say that my impression  of modern Athens was negative. Businesses did not open until late morning, graffiti covered much of the downtown and even the walls of the Plaka like an ugly tattoo, cab drivers complained at every chance, and loiterers flanked doorways, parks, churches, and historical sites–just about everywhere we walked. Add to those images the hundreds of homeless dogs on the streets. People were simply hanging out.

The contrast between modern Athens and ancient Athens is stark.

Being in the realm of ancient Greece and its stunning reminders of the genius, industriousness, and the pure beauty of ancient Greek drama, philosophy, mythology, literature, mathematics, and sport was an entirely different emotional experience.

The Parthenon by Day

The Parthenon by Day

Temple of Hephaestus

Temple of Hephaestus

One afternoon, we decided to drive to Cape Sounion which juts out into the Aegean Sea. There, according to Greek mythology, King Aegeus leapt to his death upon seeing his son’s ship sailing back from Crete  flying a black sail. The father and son had agreed that should Theseus lose his life in his battle with the Minotaur, the signal would be the sail. The tragedy of Aegeus’s death is that his son had simply forgotten to change sail colors.

The Temple of Poseidon

The Temple of Poseidon

Cape Sounion is also mentioned in Homer’s epic tale The Odyssey.

As we approached the promontory, the temple looked like the strong bones of Pericles himself.  I wondered if Lord Byron had really carved his name (and defaced)  one of the Doric columns. Soon I would see it for myself.

IMG_5648We learned upon reaching the closed gates to the Temple of Poseidon the ticket-takers, supervisors, and gift store clerks were not at work. They were on strike.

 

Odeon of Herodes Atticus

Odeon of Herodes Atticus

The Greek drama continues today, June 30, 2015, long after Oedipus and Antigone. If the Oracle at Delphi is still in business (and agrees to pay her taxes), perhaps the Greeks can swallow their hubris, cut their pensions, tighten up their togas, and get to work, just like the rest of us.

 

 

 

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Iris Origo and La Foce

The Villa at La Foce

The Villa at La Foce

by cheri sabraw

One of the imaginative exercises in which I sometimes engage is to place myself into the historical time and worn out shoes of real people who did not bring on their difficult circumstances through their own poor decision-making, but rather, who experienced their harsh slices of life at the hands of others or because of circumstances beyond their control. People like the Viennese psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, and my heroic mother, Joan Block, are several people who come to my mind.

How such individuals handle stressful life experiences not of their own making with the effrontery of lions, I find liberating. Just thinking about their personal courage can be as emotionally sustaining as the awe I feel in the presence of a magnificent waterfall, a vast desert, or violent ocean waves pounding a rugged Northern California coastline. That type of experience reminds me that no matter what happens to me, I will push on and live the most meaningful life I can.

Iris Cutting Origo was one such person. Her peaceful life in Tuscany during the war years of 1943-44 was suspended by Mussolini’s Italian fascist supporters who betrayed their neighbors by turning them in, and by the German soldiers who executed boys in Montepulciano, farmers in Buonconvento, and Jews in Florence.

Iris Origo, her husband, Antonio, and daughter Donata, 1943

Iris Origo, her husband, Antonio, and daughter Donata, 1943

As Origo wrote on November 28, 1943,

“ We are being governed by the dregs of the nation [Italy]—and their [Republican government] brutality is so capricious that no one can be certain he will be safe tomorrow.”

Several weeks ago, we visited her home and the stunning gardens that surround  her Villa which still stands in the shadow of Mt. Amiata, perched on a rounded hilltop overlooking the vast Tuscan landscape of cypress and olive trees, Sangiovese vineyards and wheat fields– a place she and her husband called La Foce.

Mt. Amiata

Mt. Amiata

The visit became an opportunity to dwell on their lives, she in particular. They  purchased the untamed land in 1924 and spent the next 40 years beautifying it to its present splendor, but more importantly, they both risked Axis reprisals in the forms of Italian fascists and German soldiers during the German occupation of Italy by sheltering orphaned children, P.O.W.’s, and anyone who came to La Foce tangled in the throes of war. They did not turn anyone away.

Part of the garden

Part of the garden

Origo, an Anglo-American who married Italian Anthony Origo in 1922, chronicled these two war years in her diary which I read while in Italy: The War in Val d’ Orcia: An Italian War Diary 1943-1944.

 The most starting aspect of the diary is the almost detached approach that Origo takes as she keeps her daily notes that chronicle bloodshed, death, heartbreak, and human cruelty, notes that had to be buried in the garden each morning, lest the Germans find them.

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The story (you will excuse the paradox) is subtlely riveting, especially when she is forced to march 60 of her charges, mainly children, six miles in the heat of the day from La Foce up the road to Montepulciano in the middle of gunfire, Allied bombing, and a road strewn with corpses.

The view of part of La Foce from the main Villa

The view of part of La Foce from the main Villa

This story is not one to miss. It changed me!

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Montefollonico, Tuscany, Italy

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by cheri sabraw

In Italy this time of year–when the fields boast their fertility, when the grape vine tendrils twirl and pirouette  above their training wires like ballet dancers, when olive trees explode with star-shaped mini-buds sure to produce an oil fitting for dipping–the tourists swarm like the bees which pollinate so much here in Tuscany.

June is Busting Out all Over!

The Sangiovese vineyards of the Val d’Orcia

Thus, in an effort to spend a quiet three days looking across the valleys to Montepulciano and to visit Pienza–all while trying to decide if the topic of study this past week, Albert Camus, believed in hope–we decided to stay in a town of 700 residents–Montefollonico.

image imageIn Montefollonico, only 2-5 small restaurants, one large church, and a park sit on top of the hill. From our small hotel below, we hear the resonant rhythm of the church bells peal from little brother Montefollonico to big important brother–the one popular with all the pretty ladies and bedecked in finery and status–Montepulciano!

Montepulciano

Montepulciano–How hopeful a sight!

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San Gimignano

by cheri sabraw

Originally an Etruscan town, San Gimignano, about an hour from Florence in the stunning hill country of Tuscany, is known for its many towers, most of which originate from the 12th and 13th centuries. There are twelve still standing but at one time, more than 70 towers reached for the sky in a competitive drive for status. This frenzied “my tower is better than your tower” activity reached its peak during the Florentine power struggle between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. You may remember that Dante Alighieriimage (The Divine Comedy ) was a Guelph politician from Florence before he was exiled. On May 8, 1300, Dante traveled to San Gimignano to make a speech.

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I must admit that I knew nothing of San Gimignano’s history, save that E.M. Forster’s  Where Angels Fear to  Tread  (1991)  was filmed in there.

San Gimignano can be seen in one day and as the guide books advised, we stayed over the night to experience the medieval alleys and stonework and the quiet rolling vistas, dotted with wine grapes ( Vernaccia di San Gimignano) and olive orchards, after the hordes of tourists left around 5 pm.

The locals were characteristically vociferous. image

Before the tourists filled the tiny streets like locusts, we arose early to take a picture of the old cistern in the center of the the town–the Piazza della Cisterna. This well, as you can imagine integral to a medieval city, was built in 1237 and rebuilt in 1346. It is an octagonal travertine structure, now filled with coins.

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We head to a small town, Buonconvento, where we will be discussing Albert Camus’ work The Plague, the Stranger, and the Myth of Sisyphus.

Oh, and speaking of the plague, it hit San Gimignano ( and most of Europe) in 1348, wiping out half of the city’s population.

Good-bye to San Gimignano!

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Along for the ride

by cheri sabraw

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Today in San Gimignano, an old woman dressed in blue caught my eye. Her nylon stockings, pumps, and oversized purse all stylized her in an elegant fashion as she rested before heading down the tile street.

That such a woman and I would intersect at such an opportune photographic moment is not surprising, not today.

My mother at age 78 was with us the last time we traveled to Italy seven or so years ago. She couldn’t walk by herself or hear but boy could she smile.

On the plane last night with my compression stockings pressing in around my calves like circular wrenches (my mother wore such stockings all the time for her lymphedema) and with a gentleman sitting diagonal to me wearing a cochlear implant (my mother lost her hearing during a serious bought of meningitis and wore a cochlear implant), I had a  strong sense my mother was, once again, with us on our way to Florence and the Tuscan countryside.

Then again this morning when a Lufthansa flight attendant offered me my choice of jam, I reached blindly into the basket and my fingers emerged with apricot, mom’s favorite.

Are these coincidences?

Not really.

I now question my spur-of-the-moment decision to include some of my mother’s ashes in a small vile that sits tucked in a corner of my purse.

Should I have declared her at the security checkpoint?

She is here with us. Now, I must decide where to sprinkle her.

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Morning melodrama

by cheri sabraw

My heart is beating but my pace is offline.

I should be in the shower, the hot water pounding my  muscles into leaner and friskier flesh not unlike tenderizing a brisket.

My coffee is ice cold; the house still shivers in  its early morning chill, unable to heat itself.

The beep-beep-beep of the computer’s battery, purchased to alleviate power-surges, drones on. I stare at it under the desk, gray and mechanical, reminding me in syncopated rhythm how mechanized I have become.

I’m trapped here.

The garage doors will not open.

The generator, in an irony of ironies, has a dead battery. As I fiddled, it winked at me in my robe as I feverishly tried to manipulate its buttons. My god, I can’t check my e-mail!!

Strangely, I feel peaceful, unable to open my gate, dry my hair, and ready myself for the day.

The little creek babbles; the blue jays screech, the bulls across the road growl at their cows; a squirrel darts by my window; the dog snores under my feet.

The power is out.

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The Kentucky Derby

by cheri sabraw

Today in Louisville, Kentucky, the bell will scream and twenty thoroughbreds will free themselves in stunning locomotion from their forced imprisionment in the steel rectangle of the starting gate.

Their chests and forelegs will lurch forward, powered by two of the most powerful hind quarters in the animal kingdom.

Ears pricked, they wait in compressed captivity for the sound of the bell and the rumble of the crowd. Once free to thunder down the soft dirt track in a detonation of fire, they pin their ears back to their tucked heads and flare their nostrils in an effort to suck down the oxygen which must nourish their lungs and lubricate their brains for one mile and a quarter.

Those with blinkers see only what lies ahead. For the one with the most endurance and heart, that view will open like a vast prairie land laden with clover and sweet grass.

For those without blinkers, the sights to their right and left will be a familiar Pavlovian roar of thunder, crash of  leather, jostle of bumps, and rhythm of stride as they settle into a position and feel the strategy on their backs.

The traffic jam of the starting gate will fade and the speedsters will set the pace, some by strategic trainer design in order to burn out the favorites.

In the back stretch they enter a house of mirrors where, to the fans without binoculars, they do indeed stretch and elongate into a Pegasus herd with noses, ears, necks, backs, rider, rumps, and tails on the same horizontal line.

The weaker horses fade back and it is here, at the end of the backstretch, that the trainers’ grand designs and tactics reveal themselves. We see a chestnut torpedo launching itself in the middle of mass: it lurches forward and forward and challenges the black one with heart and courage.

In the end, two or three race horses rush down the home stretch. On one, the bay creature with the blinkers, a thin whip will sting his backside to remind him to stay focused, lengthen his nose, pound the ground, and run for his life, even though his heart is bursting with blood and hormones.

The one–the Swaps, the Carry Backs, the Northern Dancers, the Man o’ Wars, the  Seabiscuits, the Affirmeds, and the greatest of all–the Secretariats, will cross under the wire in a beautiful blur of the Sport of Kings.

Today is the Kentucky Derby.

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Was I in a vortex?

IMG_2617 by cheri

I’ve written about red rocks  here and here on my blog.

In those travelblogs I reflected on the red rock castles, bells, chimneys, and stunning buttes here in the American Southwest. Those entries, descriptive, and at times, melodic, emanated from my own mind without the help of anything artificial.

It must have been Sedona’s famous vortices  or vortexes (debate ensues) that electrically beckoned me from a restless sleep at 5:30 am this morning and then compelled me, nay, magnetized me, to blindly put on Nike walking shoes, purple striped yoga pants, and a Stanford tee-shirt, finally swirling me out the front door of my friend’s house without caffeine.

Is this what they meant in 1987 by harmonic convergence?

My location, if you choose to follow the link, was across the rock and valley from Courthouse Butte.

Only the quail, the Gila woodpeckers, and an orange bird in a Palo Verde tree saw me leave, headed up a road whose location was somewhere in the Village of Oak Creek.

Maybe it was the incense I inhaled from a Buddha shop in Tlaquepacque yesterday or maybe it was the hypnotic rotating sculptures in my friend’s backyard (or heck, maybe it was the chardonnay I consumed with the Judge before he had to go to the Courthouse Butte): at any rate, whatever it was, the vortexual energy kept sucking me up the road, further and further, farther and farther until…until…I ran out of energy.

I sat down on a red rock, naturally.

Me, myself, and I regrouped. We had to keep moving, lest someone in the house find us gone. Cheri, up at 5:30? Cheri, out the door before coffee? Cheri, in yoga pants in public?

I am happy to report that I did make it back to the house, but not before the wistful soliloquy of a male quail in search of his honey turned my head.

One lone call, another call…he was so handsome and sweet up there on this perch.

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Where is your wife? I asked.

I’m unsure, he answered. This morning, she awoke early and left the nest, wholly unlike her.

Oh, I see.

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The Audience?

by cheri sabraw

Should my blog be instructional? Entertaining? Philosophic? Revealing? Biographical?

Over the past seven years, I have tried to do it all. Surely, some of my loyal readers want to learn, others want to laugh, some want to wrestle with life’s deepest questions, voyeurs want to look through my windows, and the curious (or the bored) want to know about my life–what animates, bothers, excites me.

At this point in my writing career, I often wonder–with the overflow of writing from all ends of the earth–much of it predictable,  depending from which source it flows–I wonder what most regular people want to read. I realize the italicized  regular will bother some of you out there. My father used to call just salt of the earth people–regular. You know…you say hello and he says, hello.

I now observe men and women reading  what we used to call light reading–magazines, newspapers, romance novels, or  self-help books. Granted, what one reads on her iPad is now protected from wandering eyes by the sleek black screen, framing words that we have downloaded instead of checked-out from the library, but I haven’t observed anyone reading Angle of Repose lately. I did ride on a Southwest Airlines flight Tuesday in which the woman across the aisle was slogging through Donna Tartt’s latest miserable tome The Goldfinch <yawn> <meh!>.

So maybe instead of fluff or sex or horror, people are reading some of the seminal texts of the past on their iPads?

Would reading such texts make our culture better? (yes)

Would burning People Magazine, Men’s Health, or Cosmopolitan change anything?

Is what we read indicative of who we are? (yes)

Should I write about the aging process, women’s fantasies, the benefits of eating arguably the most unsavory green in the produce aisle–kale?

Should I tell you stories of yore, write social commentary, rhapsodize about art, music, and food?

Maybe I should describe the joy I felt today upon seeing my first baby quail?

Or maybe I should add that immediately after seeing this little puff of feathers, sandwiched in between its monogamous mother and father, running across the desert rock  in harmonious syncopation , I worried that the other babies had been eaten. After all, quail usually lay more than one egg.

Perhaps I should write about The Plague by Albert Camus–the book I am reading for a May class. About buboes, fever, quarantine, and fleas? And what is Camus’ point?

Do you read me?

 

 

 

Posted in Education, Life, My childhood, My fiction, On fiction, Parenting, People | Tagged , , , , , | 36 Comments

The Importwance of Being Uhnest

by cheri sabraw

One of my grandsons, the one who is under the age of seven and above the age of five, is quite a card. The only problem is that when I tell him so, he replies,

” Gwam, what’s a cawd?”

No, he is not from Boston or the East Coast in any way. He is a home-grown Californian.

He came to visit last week for the entire weekend, the same weekend that I was hosting a dinner party for six. As he hung around the kitchen table, while I chopped onion and garlic, he tried to tell me a story of his trip to San Francisco’s Exploratorium.

“So, you see, Gwam, when Mom and I went to the Explowatoeum, I saw a schwaak.”

A what?  I inquired.

Having taught English as a Second Language for four years when in my twenties, I have a keen ability to understand anyone of any nationality or age or gender speaking English.

This time, however, I stumbled.

“I saw a schwaak, ” Grandson repeated.

This frustrating cross-examination went on several more times.

Normally an easy-going little guy with a wry sense of humor, Grandson became agitated.

Finally, older brother looked up from his Kindle and rescued the day.

” Gramma, he saw a shark.”

” That’s what I said, screamed his brother, schwaaak!!!”

Yesterday, I received a phone call from my daughter. She called to tell me that she had signed said Grandson up for speech therapy. She delicately told her little son that every week for 1/2 an hour, he would be working on his speech, specifically his letter R’s. He crumpled into a writhing mess and screamed at the top of his lungs,

” Mom, you have wooned my life! Wooned it.”

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