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.”

A River Runs Through It: Vienna

The river is still the Danube, but it’s less evident than it was in Budapest, where we walked by it or across it every day. In Vienna we feel the presence of the Danube as a musical time signature, curved and sweeping, superimposed over our daily activities. Music is everywhere. In the gift shop of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Jesus and the Virgin Mary share space with Mozart and other composers; rosaries and tiny music boxes get equal billing. You can hardly eat a chocolate bon-bon without having to peel off a very attractive wrapper with Mozart’s face on it.

That’s high classical—Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert—but there is also the waltz, the Waltz King, and “The Blue Danube.” On our second day in Vienna, which happened to be Halloween day, we visited the Haus der Music, a modern, high-tech museum devoted to the history and science of Viennese music. We rolled dice—Joe threw the red die and I threw the blue one—and a giant screen made aleatory music out of the results. The composition wasn’t half bad, either. Then we let Mozart write music based on the spelling of our names. He seems to have composed a brief phrase for every letter of the alphabet, and the results could be played back in their original form or orchestrated. And that was just the first floor.

The next level was devoted to the science of music, and that’s where everything got very high tech. I learned that my ability to discern musical pitch was somewhat better than a grasshopper’s and nowhere near as good as a dog’s. On to the next level, with rooms devoted to various composers with Austrian roots, including Johann Strauss, called the Waltz King, who composed “The Blue Danube.” I remembered watching Kathryn Murray demonstrate the Viennese Waltz, and I wished I had sent away for the footprints. The museum’s app, which we had downloaded to our phones, contained additional information about each composer, along with links to You Tube videos of each composer’s music. Last stop was the virtual conductor room, where a large, interactive philharmonic was playing on the big screen. Anyone could attempt to conduct, and there were choices of three or four different pieces of music. We watched a couple of children make the effort, including one who was still a toddler. They both did quite well at waving the baton, but at a certain point the musicians stopped playing and started laughing at their ineptitude. It was all good fun, but I didn’t give it a try because I didn’t want the musicians to laugh at me.

But the Danube isn’t all waltzes and music. One odd association that I brought to it comes from research I did some years ago for a series of poems that I’m still trying to turn into a book. My main character’s gentleman friend—I’ll call it that, but it was more than friendship and certainly less than love—had an uncle who was instrumental in encouraging settlement near the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York. The uncle, David Parish, was born to a wealthy Scottish family in Hamburg in 1778. He was associated with an international banking firm in Antwerp that sent him to the United States, where he supervised the transfer of Mexican silver to Europe via New Orleans. In other words, he was laundering money. In upstate New York, he invested in land purchases, iron works, and sawmills and built a mansion in Ogdensburg; the mansion is now a museum housing Remington bronzes. He returned to Europe, settled in Vienna, and, in an uncertain financial climate, made some bad investments and lost all his money. He drowned himself in the Danube in 1826. 

We had been spiraling higher and higher in the Haus der Music, and by the time we took the elevator back down to the ground floor, night had fallen. Halloween night. The nice people at the ticket desk were all wearing costumes, and the large ground-floor room was filled with children, little girls dressed as witches, little boys dressed as skeletons. Time for us to waltz out the door and look for a place to have dinner. 

A River Runs Through It: Budapest

The river, of course, is the Danube, which in my mind is always associated with dance. “Take this waltz,” sings Leonard Cohen in three-quarter time, and I’m back in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, when every school dance (not that I went to that many of them) included a prize waltz as the highlight of the evening. I learned to dance by counting: “one, two, one, two” or “one, two, one.” I remember a particular prize waltz competition when the eliminations were faster and more furious than usual; instead of spotlighting a small group of the best dancers among us, the teachers who were running the shebang eliminated everyone. The dance floor was bare. We thought we were waltzing, but we were all doing the fox trot, the popular dance of the day.

We could have learned to dance by watching the Arthur Murray Party on TV, hosted by Arthur’s wife Kathryn. Those people knew what they were doing and never would have confused a waltz for a fox trot or a lindy hop or anything else. And If we had been serious about it, we could have ordered paper footprints for the various dances. I think there must have been different footprint combinations for men and for women, but I don’t really remember. I do remember that there was a class of waltz—a very classy waltz—called the Viennese waltz, but I’ll save that for another city.

Right now I am on a train leaving Budapest, where Joe and I have spent the past four days. We walked along the Danube, crossed the Chain Bridge, admired the views, both upriver and downriver. We photographed Buda from Pest, where our hotel was, and Pest from Buda, where the castle was. We saw small tour boats, those that took tourists on ninety-minute cruises, and large Viking River Cruise ships looking not quite as spiffy as the ones we used to see in donor videos (i.e., commercials) before every episode of Downton Abbey. Budapest is a beautiful city, and the Danube runs through it.

On both sides of the river the city contains memorials to Hungary’s heroes from various historical periods. Some of these examples of public art employ traditional sculptures of men on horseback, while others vary from the expected by being whimsical in design and execution. The most unexpected, most simple, and, in my opinion, most moving memorial is called Shoes on the Danube. It is on the Pest side, down from street level, close to the water, and it looks at first like a scattering of old shoes perched on the edge of the walkway. The shoes look old, musty, worn out, as if they had been in some old grandmother’s closet since the 1940s. When I searched for further information, I learned that the eighty pairs are not the real shoes but rather replicas cast in iron by the Hungarian sculptor Goulart Pauer. Pauer and his friend Can Togay created the memorial in 2005. A website about the display tells me the following: “The Shoes on the Danube is a memorial to the Budapest Jews who were shot by Arrow Cross militiamen between 1944 and 1945. The victims were lined up and shot into the Danube River. They had to take their shoes off, since shoes were valuable belongings at the time.”

According to Wikipedia, Arthur Murray was born in Galicia, Austria-Hungary, in 1895. His parents, Sarah and Abraham Teichman, named him Moses. They brought him to America in 1897 and raised him on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Because of anti-German sentiment after the start of World War I, Moses changed his name to Arthur Murray. He was an immigrant kid who loved to dance and made a career out of teaching others to dance. How would he feel to see the sad shoes of people who never danced again? 

Time for a Little Leitmotif

I began to notice a pattern. First there was an organ grinder in Berlin, right near the Brandenburg Gate—a real, live organ grinder, but without a real, live monkey. Instead, so that we’d get the idea, he had hung from his organ a toy monkey, useless as a collector of coins but cute and still a monkey. Then we went to Dresden and visited the Zwinger, an elegantly groomed estate with a couple of museums, one of which was devoted entirely to porcelain from the collection of Augustus the Strong. In addition to his other interests, which mostly had to do with ruling countries, Augustus was a champion of porcelain arts. His collection includes impressive pieces from Japan and China: large vases, cachepots, pieces that look like gigantic ginger jars, teapots, and figurines. Augustus was also instrumental in establishing a home-grown porcelain industry. The galleries devoted to Meissen pieces were my favorites, especially those showcasing Augustus’s porcelain menagerie. I saw lions and lambs and rhinoceroses, but what I liked best was the grouping that included a set of monkeys engaged in everyday activities like taking snuff or eating grapes.

When I was a child and lived in New Bedford, my mother would often take me to Buttonwood Park. I would play on the swings and slides, and then my mother would buy me a box of Cracker Jacks. I didn’t like the popcorn part of the Cracker Jacks, but I liked the peanuts, which were not plentiful, and the toy hidden somewhere in the box. I would find the toy, eat a few peanuts, and hand the box to my mother, who liked Cracker Jacks quite a lot. Then we would head over to the park’s zoo. There were bears inside a double-fenced enclosure that included a pool to splash around in and a cave to hide in when they got tired of being gawked at. There was a buffalo that was very careful not to step on the chickens walking around him. There were goats and geese, as well. Two or three years after my brother was born, one of the geese bit him on the finger; I guess my brother shouldn’t have been poking his finger through the wire fence and calling “Mother Goose, Mother Goose!”

There was also a monkey house. I thought the monkeys were cute, and I liked visiting them, but I never got to spend much time there because my mother was always yanking me out the door. She didn’t approve of the monkeys’ behavior, but I was a little girl and didn’t notice that they were doing anything wrong. Maybe one of them was taking snuff and setting a bad example.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate is imposing, even in the rain, even with a whole lot of other people milling about.

I was actually in Germany when reunification happened, twenty-six years ago this month. I was there to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair, staying in a hotel in Bad Homberg and commuting by train to Frankfurt. Berlin was many miles away. Since I had a full schedule of appointments the next morning at the Buchmesse, I had decided to ignore the reunification events in favor of getting a full night’s sleep. I went to bed early, but something, maybe the excitement in the air, forced me to wake up before midnight. I watched the televised ceremony, and I’m glad I did.

The next morning, my commuter train didn’t show up, and I had to wait for the next one. When I got to the Buchmesse, one of the escalators was broken, and I had to climb a lot of stairs.