SIMONE ON THE ROAD – PART 3

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Editor’s note: This is the third installment of Travels with Simone…..
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One year my husband and I set out to visit the medieval cathedrals of northern France, a different one every day. When we got to Laon and were admiring the facade, we noticed that, instead of the usual gargoyles that are supposed to guard against evil, sixteen oxen were carved over the towers, each one looking out in a different direction. We were told that the builders wanted to honor these animals who toiled uphill from morning to evening carrying heavy loads of stone and other building materials. Oxen are much stronger than horses. We were delighted with this unusual story.

I like the soothing experience of river cruising and have traveled on the Rhone, the Rhine and the Danube. While you are sleeping, the ship has transported you to another town. All you have to do is cross the gangplank and explore. No tiring bus trips. If you have a cabin with a balcony you can watch colorful houses floating by, as well as the occasional castle or church. On one such trip, four musicians from the Philharmonia Baroque played for us every evening.

Sometimes you take a trip which turns into a vacation. My husband was active in the French Veterans Association. He had fought in the Free French Forces of General Charles de Gaulle in World War II.

In 1996 we traveled to Israel where he was meeting with Israeli French veterans. The town was Netanya , a seaside resort on the Mediterranean. The bus from Haifa dropped us on the main road on the outskirts of the town. We were far from the city center and no taxis were visible anywhere. I parked myself on a bench with our two suitcases while my husband walked downtown and eventually came back with a taxi. We stayed at a hotel overlooking the beach.

Netanya is not a “destination.” There are no “must sees.”

While meetings were going on, I drifted to the beach for the day. It is a very civilized beach. I rented a chaise with an umbrella and settled down to absorb the cloudless sky and the incredible dark blue of the Mediterranean. There are no tides and the water laps gently and invitingly. Swimming in the sea is a totally different experience from pool swimming.

Our hotel included two meals a day but I was not in the mood for a lunch of cabbage soup and pot roast. Instead I snacked at the various food booths.

In the evening we strolled aimlessly on the main square, looking at shop windows, eating ice cream and eavesdropping on conversations in Hebrew, French and Russian. It was peaceful and serene and difficult to imagine that we were at a stone’s throw from the occupied territories.

Simone On The Road – Part 2

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Editor’s note: This is the 2nd of a 3 part posting about Simone’s travels. Today, her general thoughts on the reasons to travel.
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Pleasure is often a byproduct of traveling and arrives when you don’t expect it. You may be driving in Germany and come upon the perfect little hotel on a river and it has a room for you. Or you may be wandering in a small town and suddenly you are in the town square where people in colorful costumes are folk dancing. Noticing a beautiful church, you enter and are engulfed in a wave of sound; someone is playing Bach on the organ. You stay and savor it. Another time it could be a wedding taking place and you watch the unfamiliar ritual. None of this has been staged for you. It is just there for your enjoyment.

In the 17th and 18th centuries young aristocrats went on a Grand Tour as a culmination to their education. Traditionally this meant a lengthy journey through Europe to visit the great centers of culture: Paris, Venice, Rome, Florence and more. They were to absorb first-hand the language, art, architecture and history of these fabled places. After Pompeii was discovered, the Grand Tour included a visit to these famous ruins.

Later, at the beginning of the 20th century the travel agent Thomas Cook devised a more informal and democratized Grand Tour for the middle classes. This was the start of organized group travel.

Travel is supposed to broaden your mind. It takes you out of your usual environment. If you live in a busy metropolis you may have a hankering to go “back to nature,” see birds, listen to flowing streams, contemplate high mountain peaks or gaze at grazing sheep. Or you may want to visit different countries to see how other people live to shake you out of your complacency. Often you are faced with unexpected situations, have to confront problems, overcome obstacles, and in the process learn about yourself. This can become a transformative experience.
Sometimes your destination is overshadowed by what happens on the way to getting there.

Some choose to see traveling as an endurance test, to measure how well they perform and thus feel good about themselves. Always there is an element of exploration and discovery. As in novels, the protagonist sets out on a physical journey that becomes a spiritual journey along the way.

A trip can also be a pilgrimage, not necessarily a religious one but a revisiting of places you once knew, or a recapturing of an experience you had like returning to the beaches of Normandy for those who had fought in World War II. And then again you can go back in time and suddenly find yourself in a place far away and in a time long ago.

Next time, another travel story…..

Simone On The Road – Part 1

onthemountainEditor’s note: This is the first of 3 postings about travel. Simone mixes some of her own adventures with thoughts about what traveling can mean. We start with a journey to a biblical mountain…
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When I was much younger my husband and I took a trip to Israel which included a visit to a most unusual place.
The Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. Catherine is in the Sinai Peninsula. It is situated part way up the mountain where God is said to have appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush. The history of the Monastery dates back 17 centuries. The Monastery contains the relics of St. Catherine, a Christian martyr and houses manuscripts, early books, mosaics and an ossuary so old that it is not even gruesome any more. St. Catherine’s is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Had I known what I was getting myself into, I would probably not have gone on this expedition which would have been a great pity. Fortunately I had no idea that there was no real road and that we would be traveling in a Land Rover over terrain strewn with rocks the size of boulders. The landscape was otherworldly, almost lunar. At one point, a woman in a flowing black dress, forehead covered in coins, leading a donkey appeared suddenly, like an apparition. She was oblivious of us.

When we got to St. Catherine’s, our accommodations were truly ascetic. The mattress on the bed sagged and the sheets looked moldy as if they too dated to biblical times. In the morning I felt miserable, not having been able to sleep as I tried to cling to the side of the bed without rolling into the middle. The next morning, we were scheduled to hike up the mountain. The day dawned dark and gloomy and the mountain looked foreboding in the early light. I looked up at our destination high on the mountain and decided I would not attempt it.

So I let my group start the climb without me. I must have looked pretty forlorn to a party of kibbutzniks who suddenly materialized, ready to start their own ascent. They surrounded me and practically bowled me over with their enthusiasm. I was persuaded to climb with them because their spirit of adventure was contagious. I made it to the top and my sudden appearance greatly surprised my husband.
But I had made it.
I don’t remember a burning bush. It probably had burned itself out. On our way back we saw what looked like a mirage, but wasn’t. It was an old man brewing coffee over a fire. It was strong, sweet and tasted like ambrosia. We made it back to the base. The next day the back of my legs hurt from the effort of the descent. This was the most rigorous hike I ever undertook and I am very glad that I did not listen to myself and miss it.

Next time, general thoughts on travel….

How Do You Say That In English?

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Each language looks at the world through a slightly different lens and develops its own idiosyncratic expressions. To be sure many experiences are common to humans everywhere and many ideas are expressed in similar ways. But certain perceptions escape this shared sameness and generate their own vocabulary. The Germans, for instance, have their own Weltanschauung. But wait, say you. Isn’t that a fancy word for worldview? Certain linguists maintain that it represents a more comprehensive outlook, a more exalted vision than the pedestrian “worldview.”

Two more such ostentatious German words have invaded our language: Zeitgeist is a one-word way of saying: “the intellectual fashion of the day.” Its virtue is brevity. Gestalt refers to “the whole nature of something.” It too is a useful shortcut. There are some more: Leitmotiv is used in music and literature. It is a recurrent theme associated with a character or a situation. Still another German word is considered to be untranslatable: gemutlich, which has a connotation of cozy and pleasantly comfortable. I think that “comfy” conveys the same feeling.

I am not aware of any Russian words that have entered the English language but Vladimir Nabokov who wrote both in Russian and in English cites two that have no equivalents: Toska means “spiritual anguish tinged with nostalgia.” Poshlost refers to a certain vulgarity of taste and moral tackiness. It is a little like the German word “kitsch” which we have adopted. The Germans have also given us “ersatz”. During World War II it was used to describe a poor imitation. When there was no real butter or leather there was ersatz. Nowadays we like to say”faux” (like faux fur) to designate a fake.

The French say the word “depaysement” cannot be adequately translated. Literally it means being out of your country, something like: out of your comfort zone. And while we are talking about French, “enjoy your meal” is just not the same as “Bon Appetit.”

The whole Yiddish language is in a category by itself. It is much easier to steal it wholesale than to develop satisfactory equivalents. Isn’t “Oy vey” more expressive than “Woe is me?” Doesn’t kvetch sound better than complain and isn’t “schlep” a lot more colorful than drag? “Schmooze” conveys something different from just mingling and “chutzpah” will beat nerve or audacity any day.

Saul Bellow says that oppressed people tend to be witty. Being self-deprecating is a defense mechanism. You laugh at yourself to disarm “the enemy.” It is a preemptive strike against them laughing at you.

Finally I have come up against two Hebrew words for which there is truly no translation. The first one is used when a woman is wearing a new outfit which you have never seen before. You are then supposed to say”titkhadshi lakh” which means roughly “renew yourself.” For a man, it’s tikhadesh lekha.
The other word is “davka” which has no equivalent in English. It has a number of uses and meanings and contains elements of contrariness, emphasis, paradox, irony and spite. Example: “She knows I am here every day except Friday. Davka she came on Friday.”

Do you know other untranslatable words or expressions? I would love to hear about them.

Opera and Life

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In my youth, music came from the radio or via records played on a gramophone. Each record was printed with a dog attentively listening to the sounds emanating from a record player’s big horn. The text read, “His Master’s Voice.”

What kind of “tunes” was I listening to? Mostly opera arias by the great singers of the time: Caruso, Nicolai Gedda, Jussi Bjorling, Chaliapin and others. Yes, many of them were males. But I also liked the pop music of the day. Back then there was not such a divide between the two genres. Many singers had a foot in each camp: Mario Lanza,Ezio Pinza, Grace Moore, Lily Pons, Deanna Durbin were some of them. It was the golden age of the movies and they all appeared on the screen. Films were the great unifier. One pop singer was called Tino Rossi . He was the Andrea Boccelli of my youth and appealed to the sentimental sensibilities of the 1930s.

Back then I thought opera was just a collection of beautiful solos. We had no opera house and I had never seen a complete opera performance. And then one day I witnessed an amateur rehearsal of “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Mascagni. Suddenly my whole musical world was totally changed. Although I had never been in love, I completely identified with Santuzza pleading with Turiddu not to abandon her. Her pain became my pain. I understood that opera was much more than bel canto. It was drama, tragedy, poetry, farce, all of it enriched by music. And music often expressed those sentiments better than words alone could. What would seem absurd, even excessive if spoken suddenly seemed absolutely right when sung. In the famous quartet in Rigoletto four people speak at the same time and instead of resulting in cacophony, each voice is heard and understood while they blend at the same time. When listening to Violetta (in La Traviata) sacrificing her own happiness to that of Alfredo, you cannot help crying.

The same scene in Dumas’ “La Dame aux Camelias” might seem mawkish and over the top because our sensibilities are not the same as those of the 19th century. “La Dame aux Camelias” was inspired by the real life story of Marie Duplessis an ignorant peasant girl in Normandy whose brutal father beat and raped her. When she was fourteen, he sold her to an old man of 70 who took her to Paris. Within a few years she changed her name from Alphonsine to Marie and totally remade herself into the most famous courtesan of the day. She lived by her wits and prospered. She died of tuberculosis at age 26. Her story inspired a novel, a play, several movies (including one starring Greta Garbo), a ballet and Verdi’s La Traviata.

Sometimes an opera plot is so absurd that it is only held together by the music. In Verdi’s Il Trovatore, you will find revenge, abduction, mistaken identities, a baby thrown into flames. It is so ludicrous that no matter how much you would wish to suspend disbelief it is impossible to identify with it. It is only held together by Verdi’s glorious music.

And sometimes the union is perfect: Don Giovanni goes to Hell in style and The Marriage of Figaro ends with everybody living happily ever after to Mozart’s uplifting music.