Tuesday, December 29, 2015

My Log 497 Dec 28 2015: Journey through Dalmatia --- 4: Trieste, whose beauty and serenity I fall for like a ton of bricks: leaving another glorious European city, I hope to return some day

Tram in Trieste
Tram in Trieste (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Trieste, Italy
Trieste, Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Central square, Trieste, Italy
Central square, Trieste, Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Yesterday I promised to keep you informed about Europe’s border problems, so far as they have affected me. Today I can report that in travelling this morning from Slovenia into Italy, no border intervened, no one asked for our passports, and everything went smoothly.
Since apparently only two buses were running during the day from the small town of Piran in Slovenia, where I have spent the last five days --- in an effort to escape the accursed family Christmas celebrations, but that is another story --- and since Piran historically has been under a huge Italian influence, and was at one time predominantly Italian in population --- I expected the traffic to Trieste, just across the border, would be brisk.  Therefore, expecting a long queue for the bus, I struggled out of bed at just after 5 am in order to make sure I got a seat in the bus, which was to leave at 6.45 am. Of course, there was no one else there except my partner and myself, and for the better part of an hour I had to run up to every bus that turned in, to be told it was not the bus to Trieste.
Eventually the correct bus came, on time, and we took off, slightly groggy from the rather hectic takeoff, and in just over an hour we were in Trieste.
I had no particular expectations of this city. But I was disappointed when our bus entered the city through what looked like a working class district, of hillsides covered with medium-rise low-income-looking apartment houses of indiscriminate colour and shape. Not to worry. After being put off in the back end of the bus depot, we eventually managed to attract the interest of a taxi --- it was 8 am, building up to the rush-hour, I guess, and taxis were few and far between. However, this guy took us to our hotel, an ordinary, comfortable place, where they agreed to allow us to eat breakfast, even though we were not able to formally check in until 2 o’clock.
After a short rest we headed off, in the general direction of the main town square. Along the way, my mind was blown, as one might say. In one street after another pedestrians were king, cars forbidden, and the vistas that opened up astonished me. Vast spaces, broad boulevards, superbly decorated, coherently-composed buildings surrounding elegant, leisurely squares, lined with chairs for sitting and having coffee or whatever you felt like. I was back in Europe with a vengeance. It had been many years since I had first experienced the delights of the better European cities, their beauty, self-confidence, and immense cachet, and I immediately felt myself to be in one of these wonderful places again. At last.
I thought of Ilya Ehrenberg’s dictum (formulated in the very depths of the utilitarian Soviet Union) that every man has two homes, his own, and Paris. You could extend that to any of the better European cities, with their facility through their human scale for making people feel that they really matter.
It has never been my way to be a tourist wherever I have gone. Rather, I like to settle into a new place, then mooch around its streets, finding companionable places to investigate, comforting and warm places to sit over a glass of wine, getting a sort of feel for the place. So I have to confess that my knowledge of Trieste and its history is rather perfunctory, although I have gathered that it was once one of the four premier cities of Europe, is now a medium size place of just over 200,000 with a long maritime and industrial history, and has always been, distinctly from other Italian cities, a polyglot sort of place that has always attracted foreigners speaking their own languages. All this is enough to recommend any city to me.
But how, along with all this activity, all the trauma of being at the centre between the Eastern world and the Western world, all the continuous drama around its identity  (there is still an ornamented building blazoning the inscription right across of Free Territory of Trieste), how has it managed to have the serenity to create such beautiful streets as I have experienced this morning just strolling around. There is the city centre, with its massive, ornamental public buildings; melding so effortlessly into the square blocks of privately owned places, but not far away an even more remarkable area, the streets of the Old City, slightly rundown in appearance, at least on the outside, tucked in beside the remains of a Roman amphitheatre. Here one finds remarkable bookshops, crowded with tens of thousands of books (and only two, if that, in English); and restaurants of such individuality as almost to defy description. I have probably never been happier than a few hours ago sitting in one of these inimitable restaurants into which one almost has to fight one’s way past the ranks of bottles, the shouts of the proprietor from behind the bar in conversation with one of the locals, through past the place where it is right to have a glass of wine, into the tiny eating place itself, with only seven tables, where I enjoyed a light lunch of mozzarella and cheese, finished off with the most delicious tiramisu I have ever tasted.
Trieste, I am leaving you tomorrow, but I’m already in love with you, and I really hope to return some day.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

My Log 493 Dec 15 2015: Something to be said for mid-Atlantic intellectuals: two who have recently come to my attention, Alan Furst and Amanda Foreman

In the last two or three weeks I have been mightily impressed by the work of two artists, the one a novelist, the other an historian, who could reasonably be called mid-Atlantic intellectuals. Both Alan Furst, the novelist, and Amanda Foreman, the historian, have solid links through either birth, education or residence with Europe and the United States and both seem to have benefitted personally and professionally from these links.
I have recently read two of Furst’s 14 novels about what he calls “near history”, the period from the access to power of Hitler in 1933, to the end of the Second World War in 1945. In both of them, his main character was a journalist, who became a spy, and the setting in both was the slightly murky world in which, in those days, political activists who opposed the powers animating the onrush of war were forced to live. Furst calls himself an “historical spy novelist”, but many reviewers, amazed by the seeming fidelity of his descriptions of the atmosphere of the time, have rather considered he should be listed as a pure novelist. In each of the books I read, Paris, a city Furst has described as “the heart of civilization,” plays a prominent role as the place to escape to from the oncoming terrors of Fascism and Communism.  Before he began to write novels, Furst moved to France, where he taught for some time at the University of Montpellier, and he later lived in Paris for many years, an experience that has clearly marked him and that has probably given rise to the engaging and sometimes terrifying way he has portrayed the world that was overcome by Nazism.
Dr. Amanda Foremen, who is the animator and author of a BBC series called The Ascent of Woman has an even more markedly mid-Atlantic background than Furst. She is the daughter of the famous Hollywood screenwriter Carl Foreman, who was halfway through working on the movie he wrote, High Noon, when he was called before the Un-American Activities Committee of the US Congress where he admitted to having been, in his youth a member of the Communist Party but to whom he refused to name any members of the party. Thus he was declared an uncooperative witness, subject to a boycott by the major studios, and he took off for England, where, eventually Amanda was born in 1968. She was educated in England, then at University in the United States, and finally at Oxford University. When she was 30 she turned her doctoral thesis on Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire into a book which became an international bestseller in hardback, paperback and on re-issue nine years later.  Her next book was A World On Fire, a history of the American civil war from the British point of view, of which one reviewer said “it resembles nothing so much as War and Peace”; and the Wall Street Journal reviewer offered the opinion that she was such an engaging writer that readers might find even her 958 page volume too short.
Just as Alan Furst’s experiences in Europe must have added to his sure touch in his drawing up the political and social atmosphere in his novel The Foreign Correspondent (2006) about an anti-Fascist who got a job in Paris with Reuters and was simultaneously editing a dissident journal distributed inside Italy, and in Dark Star (1991) whose hero is a Pravda correspondent stationed in Paris who gets mixed up in the baleful atmosphere of Nazi-run Berlin, and is trapped by the German invasion of Poland, so too Dr. Foreman’s extensive experience in Britain must be attributed to her sure touch, as exhibited in her series on the BBC. I confess I have seen only one of the four programmes, but it was done with such authority, with such a sense of commitment to the cause of women, and revealed such fascinating information about early women writers and historical figures who would be called feminists in today’s world, as to be completely captivating. Indeed, it was exciting o watch a programme carried off with such aplomb and surety. She did not bother us with any of the standard feminist arguments that might put off some members of her audience: she simply went straight to describing what her subjects had done, against what terrific odds they had succeeded, and to what extend even women today should honour them for having played their significant role in the liberation of women from the severe strictures they were under before, during and after the Renaissance (and as she made clear by including a devastating brief argument by a striking Turkish woman writer) they still are.
This was what I call ideal TV in that it was educational, compelling and left one reeling with a sense of all the things one should have known, but never had. Who, for instance, had ever heard of the Empress Theodora, who began life as a prostitute and street performer, gained the acquaintance of the heir to the throne, and when he succeeded to his title, married him, and succeeded in having legislation adopted gaining protections for women. This in the sixth century!
I had never heard of Hildegaard, a nun, an advocate so powerful that the Pope was forced to allow her to form her own monastery, from which, in her writings, she went so far as to describe the female orgasm. Dr. Foreman, with an engaging smile,  put this freedom about sexuality to a present-day nun, a very comfortable-looking middle-aged woman, who said that sexuality was part of human life, and therefore had to be taken into Benedictine life, and “has to be dealt with by natural means.” (I took this to be the closest we are ever likely to come to hearing a nun confess to masturbating.) All this in the twelfth century!
Similarly a woman called Roxelan, who began as a sexual slave kidnapped from the Ukraine, and became a member of the Sultan’s harem. In those days the Sultan was not permitted to marry: the practice was that each of his favourite women could give birth to one child, and then fade into the background, creating a sort of competition among them to produce the heir to the throne. Roxalan fell for Sulieman the Magnificent, and he for her, and she so shattered the prevailing rules that she married him, and bore him five sons and a daughter. Thereafter she ensured that one of her sons succeeded to the throne by killing one of his half-brothers, also the Sultan’s vizier, and a couple of others. On her death in 1558, the succeeding years have become known as the Sultanate of Women.
Carl Foreman did write some fine films (Guns of Navarone, Home of the Brave, Champion, Cyrano de Bergerac, Bridge on the River Kwai), but I would venture to say that his finest production of all was this superb historian, writer, communicator and artist, his daughter Amanda.
Readers should look out for her next book, to be published next year, The World Made by Women: A History of Women from the Dawn of Civilization. And Alan Furst’s new book is to be called A Hero In France, also to be published next year. I would say both would reward readers.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Link of the day: Dec 7 2015: Primer on American use of innuendo to damn political opponents, when trying to bring about regime change

A fascinating insight provided by Mark Weisbrot 
Co-director, Center for Economic and Policy Research, of Washington, D.C. in an article entitled Hillary Clinton and a Venezuelan Murder Mystery: Who Killed Luis Manuel Díaz? has been published recently by Huffington Post. The most remarkable revelation in this article is the reluctance of the English-language media to publish the now-accepted version that this Opposition leader was on trial for implication in a previous murder, and was  killed in a gangland killing connected to that murder. That Hillary Clinton made an instant judgment insinuating that the government was responsible for the killing immediately became the version accepted around the world. Read the article here.