Green Hair & Jam

A couple of weeks ago, as I was scrolling through the news items on Poetry Daily’s website, I came upon Ruth Weiss’s obituary. Although I didn’t know who Ruth Weiss was, the thumbnail in the news feed immediately caught my attention. Ruth Weiss, who was, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, a “trailblazing poet in the ‘boys’ club’ Beat scene,” had died on July 31 at the age of 92. She was less well known than her male counterparts and even less well known than Diane di Prima, who came later to the North Beach poetry circuit. Ruth Weiss is credited as being the first poet to read to the accompaniment of a jazz combo. And she had green hair.

The jazz poetry thing happened by accident. She was sitting in her basement apartment working on a poem when a friend rushed in, saw the poem, pulled it out of the typewriter, and ran out of the room. Ruth ran after her poem, as anyone would, and ended up in an apartment where a party was going on. There was music. Ruth was urged to read her work. She started to read, and the bassist and piano player soon joined in. She had started something.

Ruth Weiss was born to a Jewish family in Germany during a time when Nazism was gaining strength. The Weiss family got out of Berlin, seeking safety in Vienna and later in the Netherlands. They came to the United States in 1939, and Ruth’s parents became American citizens.

In the 1960s, Ruth began spelling her name in lowercase letters: ruth weiss. She was protesting against Germany, against the Nazis, against the German practice of capitalizing nouns. And, in another act of protest, this time inspired by the film The Boy With Green Hair, she dyed her hair green.

The Boy With Green Hair (1948) was directed by Joseph Losey and starred Dean Stockwell as the boy, Peter Frye. The film has been variously described as a fantasy/drama, a drama/comedy, and a parable. Because a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required, I’ll go along with parable and fantasy. But this is not a funny movie. It’s serious stuff. Back when it was shown regularly on a classic movie network, I watched it several times. Those of us who love The Boy With Green Hair will never forget it.

Here’s the plot: The boy, Peter, has been sent to live with Gramps, a retired or failed actor now working as a singing waiter. Gramps is not his real grandfather, but the two of them hit it off. Peter believes his parents are in England working for a war relief agency but later learns that they have both been killed. Shortly after receiving this news, he looks in the mirror after his morning bath and sees that his hair has turned green. The color won’t wash out. Gramps tells him that it’s “a grand color,” but Peter wants to be like everybody else.

In what has been described as a dream scene—but I believe it really happened—Peter is wandering through the woods and meets a group of children he recognizes from the posters of war orphans that are taped to a wall in his school. “Your green hair is very beautiful,” the children tell him. “Green is the color of spring. It means hope.” They tell Peter that his hair is a symbol to remind others that “war is very bad for children.” That’s one of the messages—yes, this is a message movie—but the stronger message is about tolerance. “How many of you have black hair?” the teacher asks. She goes on to ask about brown hair, blonde hair, green hair, and red hair. “Are there any questions?” she asks.

In 2019 the director and cinematographer Melody C. Miller released a documentary film about ruth weiss. Titled ruth weiss; the beat goddess, the film has been shown at festivals worldwide and is winning awards. I don’t know when or if it will be coming to a theatre near me—or to a TV set near me—but I know I want to see it. Here’s the trailer:

ruth weiss’s hair color is sometimes described as teal, and in fact Peter Frye’s green hair was leaning toward the teal side of green. Perhaps that had something to do with the hair dyes that were available in 1948. Now, of course, it is possible to buy green hair in a drugstore. Googling, I found a range of vibrant green hues, some of which glow under black light.

The green-haired star of the moment, of course, is Billie Eilish. I first became aware of her when she sang the Beatles’ song “Yesterday” during the “In Memoriam” segment of the 2020 Academy Awards. Only 18 years old, she suddenly is everywhere. She even made an appearance at the Democratic National Convention, urging everyone to  “vote like our lives, and the world, depend on it.” After her brief talk she introduced a new single, “My Future,” which she co-wrote with her brother, Finneas O’Connell. Billie Eilish’s green hair is much lighter and brighter than ruth weiss’s. It is green at the crown only, and her two-tone hairstyle is similar except in color to that of the late Agnes Varda.

OK, time for the jam session. Peter Frye is an old man now, but his hair is still green. Let’s imagine that he has learned to play the double bass. He starts a bass riff as Finneas sits at the piano. (Finneas does not have green hair, but you can’t have everything.) Billie and ruth take turns at the microphone, Billie singing with her sweet, whispery voice, and ruth reciting playful, incisive poems. This jam is my fantasy, and, if I want them to, they will keep the beat going all night long.

Looking for António Ferreira Couto

I have an ancestor from Santa Maria, Azores. His name is António Ferreira Couto, and he was born probably between 1660 and 1680. He married a woman named Catarina Velho, who was probably also born on the ilha de Santa Maria, but I don’t know that for sure. António and Catarina are my 7th great-grandparents. Their son Manoel Pacheco de Sousa, who was born on the island of Sao Miguel, married Catarina de Sa on December 21, 1718, in Rosario, Lagoa, São Miguel. I don’t know why António and Catarina Velho left Santa Maria for Sao Miguel, and I don’t know why they settled in Santa Maria in the first place. But since I am here in Santa Maria exploring the beautiful beaches and the green fields—green as the fields in Ireland, greener even, and it is the day after Saint Patrick’s Day as I write this—and the mountains and the contented cows that produce the delicious butter that is better than any butter I could get at home, I thought I would try to find out more about him.

The path from António Ferreira Couto to my father, Edward Couto, should be a direct one, father to son to son to son. But no, it isn’t that simple. Azorean surnames do not get passed down in that way, and in fact Antonio is the ancestor not of my paternal grandfather, João do Couto, but of my paternal grandmother, Carlota Julia Ferreira. And it gets still more complicated. Carlota’s father was a Ferreira and her mother was a Pereira. António is her ancestor not on the Ferreira line but on the Pereira line. Here’s how the descendancy goes:

António Ferreira Couto is the father of Manoel Pacheco de Sousa.
Manoel Pacheco de Sousa is the father of Maria Moniz.
Maria Moniz is the mother of Manoel Moniz Pereira.
Manoel Moniz Pereira is the father of Francisco Moniz Pereira.
Francisco Moniz Pereira is the father of Francisca Jacintha.
Francisca Jacintha if the mother of Maria de Jesus.
Maria de Jesus is the mother of Carlota Julia Ferreira.

There was a period not long ago—mostly in the 19th century, which, to anyone who does genealogy is not long ago, in fact so recent that we can almost remember it—when women did not have last names. They did not automatically take their fathers’ names. They almost certainly had a middle name, as well as a religious name that they chose later. When they married they did not take their husbands’ names. That doesn’t make Azorean genealogy any easier to sort out, but it does strike me as sensible, feminist, and modern.

So how did my paternal grandmother’s ancestor manage to get hold of my paternal grandfather’s surname? Are my grandparents cousins? Am I my own vovó? I thought the Biblioteca Municipal might hold the answer. The librarians were friendly and fluent in English. They showed me to the room where they keep the genealogy books. And in no time I found my 7th great-grandfather’s name and learned that he was born on Santa Maria and married to Catarina Velho. But I already knew that.

The church records for all the islands of the Azores are on line, thanks to the Centro de Conhecimento dos Acores, the CCA. Santa Maria, the oldest of the nine islands, has the oldest records. Some of the record books have pages that are torn. Others have been damaged by salt air, moisture, the wrong kind of ink, or mice. The volunteers from the Church of Latter Day Saints did their best to piece the pages together before filming them. The earliest records are difficult to read, and the records do not go back far enough to cover the first inhabitants of the islands. As I sit here surrounded by the beauty of this island where he once lived, I have to admit that António Ferreira Couto has escaped me.

Lost in the Cemetery

When my great-grandmother Maria Julia da Costa Frias, my maternal grandmother’s mother, died in New Bedford in 1909, her family of new immigrants didn’t have enough money to erect a gravestone. Her grave had only a round stone marker with a number on it, small and sunk into the ground. There were many graves with markers instead of monuments; people were poor and struggling, with children to feed. My grandmother visited her mother’s grave often, and then less often as years went by. And the grass continued to grow. One day, years after Maria Julia’s death, my grandmother went to the cemetery accompanied by my mother, a young girl with no memory of the grandmother who had died while she was an infant. But during this particular spring season the cemetery grass had flourished; in fact, it covered all of the markers in that particular section of the cemetery, and it was impossible to read the numbers. My mother and grandmother were in basically the right place, but there were two unmarked graves side by side, and they weren’t sure which one was Maria Julia’s. My mother was wearing a necklace, a cross on a chain, and suddenly, maybe because of all the anxiety in the cemetery air, the chain broke and the cross fell to the ground. Was it a sign? My mother and grandmother decided it was, and for months afterward they planted flowers on the grave that the broken necklace had landed on.

Here’s the problem: They did try to find out for sure. They visited the cemetery office and inquired, and by that time they weren’t even sure what the number on marker should have said. But the office had absolutely no record of anyone named Maria Julia Frias buried there at all, in any grave, marked or unmarked. She didn’t exist.

On São Miguel, in the Azores, where Maria Julia was born, families had alcunhas, nicknames, to differentiate them from other families with the same surname. The alcunha could refer to a physical trait or to an activity or accomplishment. The Frias family’s nickname was Malassadas, referring to the delicious fried dough that Maria Julia might have been known for. As my family later learned, when Maria Julia died my grand-aunt Inez’s husband made all the arrangements with the cemetery, but he gave his mother-in-law’s name as “Maria Julia Malassada.” She was there in the records after all, but it took a while to find her. And the grave chosen by my mother’s broken necklace? It was the wrong one. All of that was straightened out, and the cemetery crew did a better job of trimming the grass and keeping the markers legible. All was well.

Fast forward many years to when my grandmother was an old woman in poor health. She was troubled by the fact that her mother’s grave didn’t have a monument, and she had been saving up the money to buy one. She finally had enough, and she asked my mother and my aunt Linda to go to the monument yard, choose a stone, and have it engraved. My aunt, who was superstitious, didn’t like the idea. “As soon as we buy the stone, she’ll die,” my aunt said. Her premonition turned out to be correct.

There’s one more twist: My grandmother’s brother spelled his name “Farias” instead of “Frias.” Nobody knows why he did that. “Frias” is the correct version; I know, because I’ve seen the church documents. But one day the brother’s daughter stopped by the monument yard to look at the stone, saw the instructions for the engraving, and said “You have the wrong spelling.” That’s why my great-grandmother’s gravestone has the wrong name on it.

Here’s yet another twist: My paternal grandmother’s mother, Maria de Jesus Pereira Ferreira, died in New Bedford in 1920. A few years ago I went to the cemetery to find out where she was buried. I knew the exact date of her death, and the cemetery pointed me to a grave for someone named “Maria J. Faria.” To my ear, “Ferreira” and “Faria” don’t sound anything alike, but nobody consulted my ear, and a lot of people couldn’t read, write, or spell in those days. I checked the death notice in the newspaper microfilms at the public library, and it checked out; Maria’s parents were listed, and they were definitely my great-great-grandparents.

Just because something is engraved in stone doesn’t mean it’s correct. Two great-grandmothers, no relation to each other, have gravestones with nearly identical names on them. And it is the name of neither of them.

Marathon Girl

Was it 1975, the year my brother and I caught the bus to Boston to see a Red Sox game and the finish of the Boston Marathon? I know it was Patriot’s Day, because we both had the day off and also because that’s when the Boston Marathon happens. Although we didn’t stay for the final inning, we knew how the game would end. Strangely, in my memory the Red Sox were the winners by a big margin. But a Google search tells me that my memory was flawed, that no, the Red Sox lost by a big margin. At any rate, there was no question about which team would win when Edward and I and a lot of other people got up and left. Marathon day meant a mass exit from Fenway and a short walk toward the finish line on Boylston Street. I remember walking past some sort of public garden area. Bostonians in gardening clothes and straw hats were raking, hoeing, planting, or weeding in their individual plots, and my memory of that part of the walk is almost dreamlike; I mean, there were the Red Sox on one side, and there was the Boston Marathon on the other, and there was that bucolic utopia in the middle of all the zaniness that was Boston then and I hope still is Boston now.

We weren’t at the finish line, but we were close enough. The winner of the men’s race that year was Bill Rodgers, an American, and we cheered as he passed us. He was finishing a 26.2-mile race, and, as everyone knows, the last 26 miles are the hardest. The last 26 miles demand dedication and training, days of protein-pushing and carbo-loading, electrolytes, water, and willpower. We continued to cheer as each runner pounded by until it was time to catch our bus back to New Bedford. I knew that day that the marathon was my sport! I’m a walker, not a runner, so I’m talking spectator sport here. But what I admire in any endeavor is the ability to “keep calm and carry on,” as the English Ministry of Information famously declared during the dark days of World War II. Stamina is way more important than energy, as I less famously suggested in my poem “Magalhães’ Last Testament,” which begins:

Having always been a person of more stamina

than energy, I’m not surprised to find myself

in the Philippines, although these wide-eyed natives

are surprised.

Those are Magellan’s words, or, to be more accurate, the words I put in his mouth, and when things go bad, when he realizes that “I guess stamina won’t pull me through this time,” he still isn’t sorry. He has kept calm and carried on. He has done his job.

Several years later I witnessed a history-making marathon, although I wasn’t lucky enough to be there in person. I remember watching on television as a young woman in a white cap emerged from the tunnel into the coliseum and, with the crowd cheering wildly, continued to the finish line. She was Joan Benoit, and she won the gold medal in the first-ever Olympic women’s marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The crowd was definitely not calm, but Joan carried on and did her job.

The medium of television is great for showing the whole marathon from start to finish, but of course the cameras can’t capture all of the runners all of the time. Only the most important races are televised, and whether or not you can see the one you want to see depends on your TV provider and the package of channels you have chosen. And of course nothing beats seeing the race in person, that slice of the race visible from your hard-won piece of sidewalk. But you have to be in the right place at the right time. When my husband and I were in Paris in April of 2015, we just happened upon the Paris Marathon, which begins at the Arc de Triomphe, loops around various Parisian attractions, and for part of the route follows the Seine. That’s the part we saw. I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to run, or to watch other people run.

That’s one kind of marathon, one person going the distance, making it to the finish line, navigating the mind-blowing beauty of the fjords lining the Strait of Magellan despite the fierceness of the williwaws. One person keeping on trucking, keeping on keeping on. But there’s another sort of marathon, the crowd-sourced kind, the passing-the-baton kind, the carrying-the-Olympic-torch kind, the Vestal-Virgins-keeping-the-fires-going kind, the lights-going-on-all-over-the-world kind. When I was in elementary school I read about the Vestal Virgins in my history textbook and was fascinated, not by the virginity aspect, which I was too young to understand, but by the eternal flames, because keeping the home fires burning was another way of keeping on keeping on.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon falls into the second category, the crowd-sourced category. Moby-Dick contains 135 chapters and an epilogue; reading it takes about twenty-four hours, no breaks, no naps. With volunteer readers passing the baton, it is a true marathon event, and last fall Joe and I decided to apply to be among this year’s 215. We arrived in New Bedford the day after a nor’easter brought wind, snow, and temperatures hovering around zero degrees to the whaling city. Despite the cold and the icy streets and sidewalks, the museum was packed, and everyone appeared to be having a good time. The initial readers read the opening chapters in the Bourne Building right in front of the Lagoda, a half-scale model of a whaleship; it’s large enough to climb aboard and explore. Father Mapple’s sermon was delivered in the Seamen’s Bethel, right across the street. And then, for the First and Second Dog Watches, readers and listeners settled into the museum’s Harbor View Gallery, where two podiums in front of a backdrop of a harbor scene meant that there would be no breaks between each reader’s allotted pages. Joe and I were scheduled for the Evening Watch, also in the Harbor View Gallery. Reading from, and listening to Moby-Dick made me realize all over again what an incredible novel Herman Melville has given us. It just keeps on keeping on. Do I feel as if I’ve run a 26.2-mile race, or at least a small bit of it? You bet I do!

Margarida, José, and the Queen

Margarida saw the Queen in that summer of 1901 when all the days were damp and filled with the smell of salt.  She couldn’t see the future through the fog, but she imagined machines, money, and motion, a city crammed with tenement houses and streetcars.  She was fourteen years old.  She and her mother, Maria Julia, had just arrived in Ponta Delgada, having said good-bye forever to aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, the living and the dead.  They had their freshly-issued passports, and their trunks were still in the cart that had carried them the short distance from Rosário, Lagoa.  Soon they would board the Dona Maria.  But what was that commotion?

They had forgotten all about it.  Yes, Queen Amelia and King Carlos were visiting Ponta Delgada, and there was the Queen right on the other side of a large group of cheering people.  Margarida, who was slim and quick, darted under elbows and between skirts to get a good look.  The Queen was tall and seemed kind.  She smiled and waved at the crowd.  I like to think that Margarida caught her eye, that she and the Queen were poised for a moment on a pivot in time, and that they would remember the moment always, even as they traveled in opposite directions, one to the New World and one back to the old maelstrom of political intrigues.  I know Margarida remembered.

Before she married Carlos, Amelia had been a French princess, the great-granddaughter of Louis Philippe, the “Citizen King.”  Louis Philippe had a long history of rolling with punches, starting with his years of exile when he earned a modest income teaching in a boys’ school and later traveled the world incognito.  Amelia must have inherited her great-grandfather’s talent for coping with sudden change, as she would demonstrate in 1908.  As the Royal Family crossed the Terreiro do Paço in an open carriage, a couple of assassins shot and killed the King and his older son, Crown Prince Luís Filipe.  But when a third shot hit the younger son, Prince Manuel, in the arm, Queen Amelia turned and whacked the gunman with a huge bouquet she had just been given, catching him off guard and saving Manuel’s life.  Those were big punches.  Amelia ordered some black dresses from her dressmakers.

Margarida went to the school for immigrants.  She learned to say “I see the cat I see the dog” but wondered where that was going to get her.  Not very far, she decided, and she didn’t go back.  She met José at a dance.  He was good-looking, and she was slim and quick.  Where else but in New Bedford could a girl from Rosário, Lagoa, meet a boy from Ribeirinha, Ribeira Grande.  They married on April 1, 1905, and in no time at all they became Margaret and Joseph, although at home they still used the old names.  Joseph was a fireman.  He worked in the cotton mills, not putting out fires but keeping them going.  He also kept a dream going, a dream of becoming a citizen of the United States.  He practiced writing his name, Joseph Vieira, over and over again on scraps of paper.  His handwriting was shaky.  “Joseph” and “Vieira” were the only words he knew how to write.

The courtroom was so full of hope that Joseph could hardly breathe.  Soon he would raise his hand and take the oath of citizenship.  At least, that’s what he thought, but he had some punches to roll with, too.  There in the courtroom Joseph had a stroke, his first, and wasn’t able to take the oath.  Afterwards he had to walk with a cane.  He never became a citizen.  Years later, on a summer morning in 1941, Joseph went into the bathroom to shave and get ready for the day.  His second stroke was as sudden as an assassin’s bullet.  He died on the Fourth of July.  If Margaret had had a bouquet of flowers, she would have wanted to whack someone with it.  But there  really wasn’t anyone to whack.  So she bought some black dresses and a black coat and a black hat.  What else could she do?

Bohemian Pleasures: Revisiting the Labyrinth

Prague is a labyrinth. Seen from Google Maps satellite view, it is all red roofs twisting and winding into one another. There are streets and street numbers, but they are hidden under the labyrinthine turns of the red roofs, and a first-time visitor is likely to get lost. At least we did. Last October, when we arrived in Prague, we took a taxi from the train station and were left off in the center of a picturesque part of Old Town. The driver indicated that our hotel was close, but for some reason he couldn’t take us there. We had the address but couldn’t find the street. Wheeling our suitcases over cobblestones for at least an hour, we asked for directions from shop owners and restaurant waiters and tried to follow their leads, but all we did was walk in circles. Finally, someone pointed us toward a narrow alley that appeared to go nowhere, and we entered, veered left, passed some hanging flowerpots, and found our hotel’s office. To call our accommodations quirky would be an understatement; the “hotel” was an assortment of apartments located in very old buildings with creaky stairs. Our apartment was furnished in mid-last-century Hit-or-Miss, but it was roomy, with a large kitchen and sitting room, and it was located exactly in the center of Old Town. Now that we knew our way into and out of the labyrinth, we were exactly where we wanted to be.

That was last October, almost a year ago, and it was a real-life trip. We were early into a whole month’s adventure in Central Europe, having just spent some time in Berlin and Dresden. Our train pulled into Prague in the middle of the afternoon, but by the time we found our apartment, freshened up, and set out to explore the city, night had fallen. At night Prague is golden. It glows.

Last Thursday I returned to Prague, but this time I experienced the jumble of sensations virtually and with the aid of memory. I had reached the final destination on my Sagres-to-Prague virtual walking tour, having, since my last post, enjoyed the delights of Venice, Italy; Ljubljana, Slovenia; and Graz and Vienna, Austria. I walked every step of the way, tracking my progress with the help of my Apple Watch and an Excel spreadsheet. I was not there and I was there, both at the same time.

What is there to do in Prague? First off, the new visitor must buy a trdelník from a street vendor and eat the spiral of roasted pastry dough while walking around the square taking in the sights. Trdelniks originated in Transylvania just like someone we all know and love, but there’s nothing vampiric about them. I wish I had taken a photo, but I was in too much of a hurry to sink my teeth into that flaky, sugary goodness. Next, the visitor must check out the Astronomical Clock, locate the statue of Franz Kafka, walk across the Charles Bridge and of course back again, sit in a heated outdoor cafe and enjoy a glass of wine or beer, and stay out of the way of the horses that clop along pulling tourist carriages. It isn’t necessary to ride in one of the carriages, but it is de rigueur to admire the horses, especially the dappled greys. On a less frivolous note, a tour of the Old Jewish Cemetery and the Jewish Quarter is a must. In a restored synagogue there is an exhibit of children’s drawings that will break any visitor’s heart.

After a few days of seeing the sights, learning the history, eating the food, and admiring the horses, and before moving on to the next stop in the incredible journey, a visitor must, of course, go shopping.  Prague is a great place to buy Bohemian garnets, which are deeper in color than garnets mined in other parts of the world, and Czech glass beads, which are very pretty and surprisingly inexpensive. I couldn’t resist.

I allowed myself some time some time to wander virtually around this charming city of twists and turns, but, because the world is large and because other destinations are calling my name, I have already started my next virtual walk. Where am I going this time? Here’s a clue: For part of my journey I will be following the route of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Putting One Foot in Front of the Other: Marseille to Bologna

Public domain image courtesy of Pixabay.com

“Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun,” wrote Charles Dickens, using the English spelling of the name of the French city. He went on to describe the “blazing sun upon a fierce August day,” stared at and staring back in return, as well as the “staring white streets, staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which verdure was burnt away.” This focus on oppressive sunlight comes at the beginning of the first chapter of Little Dorrit, a novel set mostly not in Marseille and largely in places where the sun forgets to shine, like, for example, prisons of differing degrees of dankness.

Although I had read several Dickens novels, some more than once, and even watched (and, I’ll admit, enjoyed) the Wishbone version of A Tale of Two Cities, I came late to Little Dorrit. I came to it after reading John Irving’s The Cider House Rules,which is also not set in Marseille. In Irving’s novel, a character is reading, or trying to read, Little Dorrit, although, if I remember correctly, she doesn’t get very far into it, and neither does anybody else. Still, Little Dorrit keeps popping up, almost like a leitmotif. Perhaps Irving was simply paying homage to Dickens, whose work he has said he admires.

The late James Welch, whom I met when he came to Cornell as a visiting writer a number of years ago, wrote a novel that actually is set in Marseille. In The Heartsong of Charging Elk, the main character, a young Oglala Lakota, finds himself unable to adjust to reservation life in the late 19th century. He joins Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild troupe and leaves with them on a European tour. During a performance in Marseille, Charging Elk falls from his horse and is seriously injured. When he wakes up in a French hospital, he learns that Buffalo Bill’s company has gone on without him. Stranded in Marseille with few possessions, no friends, no money, and no knowledge of the French language, he must fend for himself. Bad things happen, good things happen, terrible things happen, good things happen. At one point, Charging Elk finds work in a soap factory.

I arrived in Marseille (virtually) a couple of days before last Christmas. (For anyone who is not familiar with my virtual walking tours, I do the actual walking wherever I happen to be, using my Apple watch along with Google Maps to track my mileage and map my journey. I’ve been doing this for years.) Because I have never been to Marseille in real life, my touchpoints were literary; for me, Marseille is Little Dorrit, The Cider House Rules, and The Heartsong of Charging Elk. And there is one more touchpoint, a nonliterary one: soap. Marseille is famous for the quality of its hard-milled, scented soaps. Joe and I have been using a particular brand of Marseille soap for years; when our local Wegmans stopped carrying it, we found an online source. I am not surprised that Charging Elk worked briefly in the soap industry.

After Christmas in Marseille, it was time to move on. My next stop was Nice, with memories of the Bastille Day, 2016, terror attack still fresh in my mind. And then off to Genoa and beyond. 

And here I am in Bologna, another city that I have never visited in real life, and my literary associations are scanty. Bologna figures only slightly in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy; Naples is, after all, the main character in those books. Years ago, when I sold foreign rights for an academic publisher, I met once a year with my European and Asian  counterparts at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I especially enjoyed meeting with a woman named Luisa who worked for a publisher in Bologna. I remember the year she showed up breathless and exhausted; she and her co-workers had just pulled into Frankfurt after spending the night driving across the Alps. We talked about books and, because we were about the same age, we talked about our lives.

As I explore (virtually) the very real attractions of a very old city–the terra-cotta hues, the tiled roofs, the leaning towers (because Pisa doesn’t have a monopoly on leaning towers), the piazzas and basilicas, the arcaded streets, the university (oldest in Europe), and the marvelous food (which, alas, I will be tasting only virtually), I expect to discover that I would very much like to visit Bologna actually, to put real boots and ballet flats on the ground. It’s already on the list.

But I have other places to go on this walking tour from Sagres to Prague, so I’ll have to say Arrivederci for now. Next stop: Venice.

Spitting Images

Whenever I find myself growing restless; whenever it is a damp, drizzly February in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily tapping on the Ancestry app on my phone or searching for memorials on Find A Grave; and especially whenever my genes get so hyper that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent them from dancing off to the American Bandstand of my imaginings–then, I account it high time to take another DNA test. I had already tested with Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA, but, when I learned that 23andMe was offering a Valentine’s Day discount, I couldn’t resist. I ordered the test and waited for my kit to arrive.

The saliva collection kit arrived promptly, with everything I needed and complete instructions. First step: No food or drink for at least thirty minutes before the test, and no chewing gum, either. That part should be easy, I thought, expecially since I’m not a gum chewer. Second step: Spit into the funnel until the saliva (not including bubbles) reaches the fill line. Both Ancestry DNA and 23andMe use the spit-into-a-tube method of collecting DNA. Family Tree DNA provides swabs for scraping the inside of the cheek. Both methods work, although spitting is, I think, easier than scraping; I was able to fill the tube in less than five minutes, so apparently I’m good at it. Steps three and four involve releasing the preservative sealed inside the funnel lid, unscrewing the funnel, and closing the tube securely with the small cap provided.  Next, the tube goes into a plastic bag, the bag is sealed, and the whole shebang goes back into its original box, which already has a mailing label on it.

Why take the same type of DNA test three times with three different companies? Each of the three major testing companies has a large database of results, with some overlap because of people like me, and testing with all of them provides more opportunities to find DNA cousins, compare research, discover a most recent common ancestor (MRCA), and add another branch to the family tree.

I put my box of “exempt human specimen” in the mail a few days ago, and 23andMe tells me it has reached their lab. Now all I have to do is wait.

Survivors: A Visit to the Berlin Zoo

According to Wikipedia, during World War II the Berlin Zoo was destroyed, and “only 91 of 3,715 animals survived, including two lions, two hyenas, an Asian bull elephant, a hippo bull, ten hamadryas baboons, a chimpanzee, and a black stork.” Not having a firm grasp of World War II history, which was too recent to be taught when I was in school, I’m not sure exactly how the animals were destroyed, but I believe at least some of them were eaten by hungry Berlin residents. Most of what I know about the Berlin Zoo during the war (and to me “the war” is World War II, not Vietnam or any of the wars that  followed) I learned from reading Richard Zimler’s The Seventh Gate, a novel that mixes Jewish history with a compelling mystery story. The zoo appears and reappears several times during the Zimler novel, although one of the most important animals in the novel was not a zoo animal at all but a squirrel.

I like squirrels. When I was a child, my imaginary playmate was a squirrel named Zipper. I don’t remember why I chose that name, but, when I’m sitting on the porch off our kitchen and I see a squirrel in the cedar tree outside, I always call him or her Zipper. My original Zipper was a lighthouse keeper, and I always explained Zipper’s absence from any birthday or Christmas party I attended by saying he couldn’t leave his light. I’m proud of inventing an imaginary playmate with a solid alibi.

On our last day in Germany, Joe and I visited the Berlin Zoo in the Tiergarten and saw many of the 20,000 and some animals now present, although some were probably already hibernating or just shy or uneasy around people. The giraffes and zebras were particularly impressive, and a lone polar bear with a solid sense of self surveyed us from his habitat. We saw animals that looked like squirrels and animals that looked like house cats. We saw parakeets that resembled my old friends Tippy and Roscoe. And we saw elephants. I love elephants, although my political leanings are solidly Democratic and of course I also love donkeys.

I couldn’t help but remember a passage from The Seventh Gate about the fate of the zoo animals during the war:

Hans asks me if we can go now to the Berlin Zoo. I’ve told him about it as a bribe. “What a good idea!” Else exults, plainly trying to please my son. “We’ll walk through the Tiergarten. I think the zoo might still be closed, but we can look at ducks in the ponds on the way. A few have come back.”
          “They left?” I ask.
          “We were starving. We ate ducks, rabbits … anything we could catch or raise.”
          Hans turns up his nose.
          “Yes, it wasn’t pretty,” she tells the boy. Whispering to me, she says, “The zoo animals were slaughtered too . . .”

 We were glad they were back, and we enjoyed watching the elephants, meerkats, rhinoceroses, and oryxes in something approaching their natural habitats. We were glad to see that they were well fed. And I actually got to spend some time in a monkey house, although I felt sorry for the large gorilla sitting with his back to the crowd trying to enjoy his dinner in peace. He was a little too close to human—a loner whose sense of privacy was being violated. I’m sorry about that, about being one of the violators, although I think it’s important for children to see these animals up close and personal, accompanied by all the zoo smells they produce.

Wikipedia reminds us that human history can produce its own variety of zoo smells: “In 1938, the Berlin Zoo got rid of Jewish board members and forced Jewish shareholders to sell their stock at a loss, before re-selling the stock in an effort to ‘Aryanize’ the institution. The zoo has now commissioned a historian to identify these past shareholders and track down their descendants.”

I wrote most of this post on my iPad on the Amsterdam-to-Detroit leg of our return flight. By the time we arrived home to an empty refrigerator, it was morning in Berlin, and our bodies were still running on German time. The next day was Election Day. We voted and went grocery shopping, and then we went out for pizza, wanting to compare it to the flammkuchen we had eaten just three days earlier. Then the election returns started to come in.

On Wednesday I was depressed about the election and still jet-lagged, no longer familiar with either my habits or my wardrobe. My disorientation was so complete that I seemed to be walking around in a different kind of zoo, one run by pigs who walked upright and engaged in neverending battles. They governed themselves according to a familiar principle: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”