Sunday, July 31, 2016

European Flashbacks

Weeks after our return from Europe, images and newly-acquired information continue to surface in my memory: the breathtaking beauty of the St. Petersburg Church of the Spilled Blood, Adriaen Van De Velde’s detailed depictions of Dutch landscapes and medieval daily life, stories of tsarinas and kings, conspirators and war heroes, battles and treaties.
Musical moments also come back to me, although the sounds of music are more difficult to recall than visual imagery. What I do remember is how the music made me feel, the euphoria it produced. The magnificent organs in every church spoke of the importance of religious music in centuries past. We visited a cathedral just at the right moment to hear the powerful swells of music from the organ that filled an entire wall.

Outside El Prado Museum in Madrid, a man sat on a wall playing on his guitar the Concierto de Aranjuez, perfect for creating the mood to view the paintings of Velázquez, El Greco and Goya.
  Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, its dimmed chandeliers glittering like fairy candles, provided a magical venue for opera music from Wagner, Massenet, Bizet and Saint-Saens. There the sweet notes of a violin solo rang clear and perfect, glorious and true in that hall famous for its acoustics. When friends ask me what the best of our trip was, I tell them about that evening concert.



Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Sneak Preview

A warm sunny day in midwinter is delicious. Outside tiny wild canaries twitter in the branches above me. I tell them that I feel like singing, too. I walk with an energized pace along the sidewalk, but then stop and sniff the air. Is that scent what I think it is? Yes, there in a garden – the yellow buds of an acacia are opening, perfuming the air with the fragrance that triggers childhood memories of early signs of spring in California. Acacia and daphnia scents always remind my gardener’s nose of the promise of spring days.
            The memory of brightly colored flowers in the Baltic countries even in the smallest spaces – doorways and windowsills – prompts me to put in some winter blooming plants in pots to shed some light on grey winter days. Just back home, I buy primroses – red, yellow, purple – and primulas. Trowel in hand, I work them into the soil in three large pots. Like the nesting instinct of birds, my gardener impulses are activated by the sun. Maybe having recently come from northern summer climes has them bewildered.

            This spring preview can’t last. Rain is predicted in a few days. But I have the view of my bright flowers. To the patter of rain, I’ll bite into a chocolate bar and return to the biography of Catherine the Great, a story of courage, perseverance and intrigue. With ingenuity she fools her tutors, chaperones and the Tsarina Elizabeth who keep her a virtual prisoner in the palace. She dresses as a boy to escape at night to meet her lover. She pulls a curtain over an alcove in her apartment to hide the friends gathered there.
Now I read of her efforts as Tsarina to determine the shape of Russian society and government and reorganize the legal system. A daughter of the Enlightenment, she aims to abolish capital punishment and the use of torture and guarantee equal treatment for all citizens, even the serfs. She publishes this document, the Nakaz, in 1767.
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How is it possible that these issues continue to be debated centuries later? Today’s leaders and governments would definitely benefit from a large dose of enlightenment.

Monday, July 18, 2016

My Russian Mosaic

A metronome ticks and stops. Music plays. The metronome ticks and stops. Music plays. The transmission of Leningrad Radio keeping alive the hopes of the city’s inhabitants. It is 1944. The German army siege continues to its strangle-hold over the city during the past 900 days. One million people are dead due to cold and starvation.

            I stand in the windowless museum commemorating the heroic defenders of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). That recreation of the radio’s transmission takes me back in time, more real than the battered army helmets, rifles and photos on display.
            Valentín, our 40-year-old guide, tells how the siege affected his family. His grandmother died of starvation. His grandfather’s brother disappeared. The rest of the family was eventually evacuated through the one route open to the interior. In impeccable Spanish he tells us, “No one is alive today who hasn’t lost someone in the siege.”

Back in Chile, I look over the past three weeks of travel in Europe trying to process all that my senses have taken in. Certain moments and places stand out, like the siege museum in St. Petersburg. Already my memories grow fuzzy. I write to Valentín. What is the music in the radio transmissions? He sends me a recording of the transmission and the popular Russian song on which the music is based. I listen. It strikes me that the ticking of a metronome and the strains of a song can affect me so strongly. Once again I am back to those tragic times. These are no longer just historical facts but real events within my generation’s lifetime.
Valentín takes us to a metro station constructed during the years of Communist rule. We descend into a work of art of marble columns, mosaics, gold carvings of Soviet designs and of workers of different trades, their faces reflecting pride and strength. Beautifully wrought chandeliers light up the spacious hall. We board a train that rattles and rumbles us to the next station. We stand awe-struck at the elegance.


These impressions are mosaic pieces that I must fit together in my mind, constructing a picture of the Russian people, their history, their culture. I have begun to read a biography of Catherine the Great. More pieces to fit into my mural.