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venice & dolomites

Dispatch from the Laguna

Italian friends have been most sympathetic about our recent election.  After all, they say, we survived Berlusconi.  It’s not the end of the world.



Silvio Berlusconi & Amico

They offer us political asylum, but then say that of course we are needed in our own country.  Meanwhile, we are still here to see them through their coming referendum vote on the so-called “Italicum” reform of their electoral system.

The dynamic young Italian leader, Matteo Renzi, has pushed for a “Si” on the referendum, but is canny enough to have backed off as “No” rises in the polls


renzi.jpg (680×380)

Matteo Renzi (technically irreducible, perhaps politically as well)

Renzi has been intrepid in many ways, not least in defending the rescue and accommodation of many thousandof profughi, refugees, arriving in Italy during the current migration crisis. Renzi points out that while Italy pays hundreds of millions of euros in this humanitarian mission, most other European governments have used their euros to build walls.

At a pizzeria on the Strada Nova the guy behind the counter couldn’t decide whether to use English or Italian. I suggested Cinese and we both laughed.  I asked where he was born and he said Romania. He has been in Italy for fourteen years and lives in Mestre, twenty minutes away by bus on the mainland. We talked about the high rents and long commutes in Venice and California. He said he could give my husband and me one room and shared use of his Mestre apartment for 350 euros a month. I said that unfortunately we already had a rental contract through December. He said that he really wanted to learn more English so that he could get a better job, and I said that I could give him lessons if I was staying longer.

I only had a 50-euro bill to pay for my pizza. He smiled and ran off with it to get change. I wasn’t really worried when he didn’t reappear for ten minutes, but it did occur to me that 50 euros was probably more than a couple of days’ take-home pay. He said his name was Nikolai, Nicola in Italian, he added. I said mine was Frances, Francesca in Italian. See you tomorrow? he said.

A  hundred yards on, I stopped to let a herd of school children go ahead of me across a narrow bridge. Meanwhile I went to a kiosk to get a paper with news about the latest earthquake in the Marche, and about the crises with the new refugees. The earthquake had definitely won that news cycle; there was not a word about the town in the Veneto that had barricaded its streets against the arrival of a dozen refugee women and children to be billeted in an empty hotel.

The vendor gave me two papers even after I had said, conversationally, that my husband usually bought the Gazzettino so I would only take La Repubblica. I said that I was sorry my Italian was so bad. He said, no, MY Italian is bad. I asked where he was born, and he said Bangladesh. He had only been in Italy for six months, he said in English. Before that, he had lived in London for six years, but it was too expensive. His brother, who had been in Italy for a long time, owned the kiosk. He lived with the brother nearby, and planned to go to school to learn Italian so that he could get a better job. My name is Francesca, said I. His is Nabis. See you tomorrow, I said. La Repubblica is running a series on changes in the Italian language, so I will be back. (I wish that Nicola’s pizza had been better.)

Of course it was only an idle thought that Nicola and Nabis could exchange language lessons. But maybe with ingenious use of cellphones and social media…some kind of networking?

I had been hoping to make myself useful in the refugee crisis, perhaps teaching or translating, during our Italian stay, but that too was an idle thought.  The needy refugees were not in la Serenissima, but in Mestre and smaller inland towns, Veneto, where, unfortunately, the locals are not always welcoming. In Venice the neediest refugees only come for the day trade, foreigners passing from Rialto to San Marco from cruise ship to gondola, who might need an umbrella or a carnival mask, or will drop a euro into an outstretched hand.

Many constructive responses to the migrant crisis are to be found in the 2016 Architectural Biennale in Venice, too soon closing.  And note that funds for housing the homeless were voted in by healthy margins–at least in California. As Italian friends tell us, we’ll get through this somehow.



The Wild West, My Family Gold Mine, a Bordello Holiday, and Big Alma

Around the start of the last century, my grandfather and his cousin found gold on a slope an hour west of Mount Shasta, as the crow flies.  They lost no time homesteading a hundred forested acres around their mining claim. 



Mt. Shasta as seen from the Randolph Collier Roadside Safety Rest Stop

Not much gold emerged after that initial strike on Scott Mountain.  No matter: each summer several families of Smiths and Van Nesses trekked some three hundred miles from San Francisco and Oakland to camp out while they worked the mine and fished the high lakes of Trinity and Siskiyou counties. Eventually they built cabins. According to my father, the boys used serial pints of firewater to induce “Indian John,” to do most of the heavy work.


Little Bear Lake

My grandmother Anne and Grace Van Ness were best friends, small, sharp-tongued matriarchs dressed in no-nonsense jeans and gingham shirts, who kept their children, grandchildren and–to a lesser degree their husbands–in some kind of order. They went together to provision the camps in the little valley towns of Callahan and Etna. Most mornings there were sourdough pancakes on the wood stove, and most nights there was a lot of drinking and a campfire with marshmallows and tallish tales.

The families eventually ramified into two camps, separated only by a few hundred yards of creek and boulders. In time, notably after one Van Ness girl jilted one Smith boy, the families began to pull apart. The Van Nesses, although they generally had more money at hand than the Smiths, decided to sell off part of their half to lumber interests.

After the death of Granna Anne, the Smiths had their own problems. One cousin took over the mountain camp and let it be known that she had no use for professors like my husband, who had also been known to  go fishing with a Van Ness elder.


Collier  Hotel

After some ten years of summer exile, our enterprising son (also a professor, notably of Californian & Peruvian Indians ) decided to rent a small hotel in the Scott Valley, where our branch of the family could gather and make forays to the familiar lakes and swimming holes. The Collier Hotel in the town of Etna, with six bedrooms and several common rooms, served our needs perfectly.

We all assumed that our gracious inn was the former home of the late Randolph Collier, a California state senator known as the Silver Fox of the Siskiyous. A strapping fellow with a thatch of white hair, he had been able to secure regular servings from the pork barrel for his home county. He never saw a local bridge that didn’t need re-building, and the Collier-Burns Act of 1947 financed a surge of highway building that made California’s freeways famous for a time.  (Note: my father, seeing the main chance to support his family after the war, became a highway engineer, although he had always disliked cars and driving.)

Just now, in the course of my usual desultory research, I learned that the Collier Hotel, with its gracious southern-style verandah, had been purpose-built in 1897 as a brothel. I’m supposing that the rest of the family may think this is rather jolly. Some of us grew up with Westerns where the heroine was Miss Kitty, the local madam with a heart of gold, or someone very like her.

The Collier Hotel’s latest hosts are a lovely woman, born a Karuk Indian, and her amiable husband, a Desert Storm vet.  The Karuk, Klamath, and Shasta tribes are survivors. Countless Indians died in the western takeover of the Scott Valley. Though there were no Catholic missions in the north, perhaps the number who died of disease and preventive scalpings equaled those who died under the Christian fathers in the south of the state. (Children in California public schools still study the missions, but they do have more information than we did in the 1950s.) 

Etna, an old ranch town in the Scott River valley, pop. 737 (down 50 from last census) has a barbershop, an excellent hardware store and a small supermarket. You might see a cow or more likely a deer wandering down Main Street. For a while there was a fine little Vietnamese restaurant in town, but the locals never warmed to it, and the family moved on. I didn’t need to ask: Trump is undoubtedly the local choice. Etna has no newspaper now, but in 1900 there were two, feuding of course.  One editor called the other “a pin-headed cur”. 

Some weeks later, back in the Bay Area, a journalist friend recommended a show on the American West at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, our prettiest and certainly our most pretentious local museum, sited dramatically near the Golden Gate bridge. Built at the whim of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, the museum is a copy of the French pavilion in the 1915 Panama-Pacific exposition, which was itself (tmi) a scaled-down copy of the Legion of Honor in Paris.  


Big Alma on the throne of Queen Marie of Romania

About the same time that gold was being discovered on Scott Mountain, “Big Alma,” the daughter of Danish (!) immigrants, was a popular San Francisco  artists’ model. After sugar tycoon Adolph Spreckels made so to speak an honest woman of her, she went to Paris to consort with Rodin, Loie Fuller, and other arty types, and to buy bushels of art for her collection.  

At another San Francisco museum, the De Young, you can view Ed Ruscha with his dependably wry perspective on the American West.  Let’s leave it there, for now.


From Tania’s Assault Rifle to Assad’s Instagrams

On February 4, 1974, newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment. The following months of hysteria led eventually to today’s saturation broadcasting, live and worldwide, of breaking news of terror and violence. Mini-cameras in front of a Los Angeles bungalow relayed the shootout and incineration of Hearst’s captors to millions of American living rooms.

In the earlier 1970s there was no shortage of bombings and terrorist attacks at home and abroad.  But only with the advent of live television coverage in real time did audiences gain immediate access to crime scenes, the victims, the grievers,  the shooters and their agonized parents,  teachers, and therapists. Then there was international renown on social media, inspiring homegrown psychopaths and jihadists alike. Campaigns such as “Zero Minutes of Fame” and “No Notoriety” ask news outlets to minimize shooters’ names and images.

Patty Hearst’s Berkeley apartment was one street over from our house, although we were living in Italy during that cold winter of her kidnapping, the oil embargo and Nixon’s impeachment. My husband was teaching a seminar at the University of Perugia, on the American presidency–far outside his field of Italian art and cultural history, but of great interest to the local leftists.

While Italy’s Red Brigade revolutionaries were better organized than the Symbionese Liberation Army, they were just beginning to wreak the havoc that culminated in the kidnapping and murder of former prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978, and the Bologna railroad station bombing in 1980.

The Watergate scandal fascinated Italian friends.  Their alarm at political corruption was not triggered by the low-level shenanigans of Nixon and his “plumbers”. Having succumbed to nine years of Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister, Italians know the power of a mouthy, narcissistic, misogynist demagogue. Not until the January 6 attack on the Capitol did Italy–and the world, see the present dangers.

At the time of Watergate, Hearst, a 19 year-old transfer student at Berkeley when she was kidnapped and recruited by the S.L.A., had declared an art history major. 

Sadly, it was her attachment to an Olmec carving given her by a slain S.L.A. comrade that helped to convict her as voluntary accessory to murder.

 SLA chief Donald DeFreeze was enrolled in a U.C. extension course on world history, for which I happened to be the reader. DeFreeze, taking the course from Vacaville Prison, had seemed  barely literate, but did write a few labored lines on a number of assignments. He didn’t finish, presumably because he was transferred to Soledad, where he soon escaped.  I was vaguely uneasy while DeFreeze was still at large, and  student revenge has indeed motivated the murder of more than one professor. DeFreeze died in the Los Angeles police raid.

Another student in that “postal” survey of world history was Edna Ann from Ketchikan. At the end of her carefully completed assignments, Edna Ann always appended some personal news…the spring thaw, the salmon fishing, her garden. I sent her an occasional postcard from Italy.  At that point Alaska had been a state for fifteen years. What did she make of Sarah Palin–and now of Donald Trump?    

Every news magazine cover in those years showed Patty Hearst, as the revolutionary “Tania,” with her pale cheekbones and dark combat gear, her jubilation at presidential clemency, her wedding to her [check] and finally, her pardon.

Newspapers and television were supplanted by social media and the internet from the very start of the Syrian civil war, now in its tenth year. In March of 2011, the initial protests and crackdowns in Dar’aa were spread by amateur phone videos and quickly inflamed the entire country. Not all of the videos were authentic: one purported to show freshly-dug mass graves outside Dar’aa, and not until it had gone viral did someone notice that the license plate on a truck in the video was Iraqi, and perhaps the gravesite as well.

The ensuing violence was such that journalists, officially banned from the country, were being killed right and left. Correspondents from the major news sources began to send dispatches from Lebanon and even further afield. Meanwhile the smartphone and the internet became the instruments of both the rebels and the regime. Each has maintained a staff and budget for serious propaganda creation. Funds for rebel efforts are estimated to be in the millions of dollars from internet organizers in the Persian gulf states alone. 

Bashar al-Assad’s Instagram site today has more than 60,000 followers. His winsome wife, Asma, was the subject of a puff piece in Vogue Magazine published in the first weeks of the war in Syria and then hastily killed. I read the interview before it was pulled, and it depicted her believably as an attractive, socially responsible young mother with extremely expensive shoes. These days, the Instagram photos show her meeting with wounded soldiers or playing with orphaned children. The subtext is clearly to show that her husband, the mild-mannered ophthalmologist, is unlikely to be the perpetrator of chemical and barrel bomb attacks on his own people.


Asma & Bashar with their three children and the family of a wounded soldier

On Instagram, we could also view Bashar al-Assad shaking hands with Putin, and indeed  Russia remains  his most important supporter in the efforts to end the long and disastrous war.

Dirty Tom, Trump Tower, San Francisco, Venice


Entrance hall in the 2016 Venice Architectural Biennale: ( 90 tons of recycled debris, from the 2014 Biennale!)


Across from me on the bus, an old man sat slumped, chin on chest, eyes closed. Greasy gray hair, white beard, grimy bronzed face. I tried to make out the title of one of the books jammed between junk in his bag on the floor. Elements… (of what?)

The woman next to me murmured something about the plight of the homeless in callous America. I said, that man seems familiar. Years ago at the Presbyterians’ (or Lutherans’) weekly drop-ins, his filthy hair had been brown, and he was known by some of us volunteers, not without affection, as Dirty Tom. Once he explained–he could be quite articulate–that he had always had severe aquaphobia and couldn’t tolerate the slightest contact with water.

Recounting a spell in the lockup ward in the local hospital, Tom had complained of the psychiatric resident, who turned out to have been our neighbor at that time. I remembered the neighbor saying then, “I don’t kid myself about being a father figure and doing good: there are guys in that ward who would like to KILL me.” Dirty Tom was one of them. He claimed that the doc had botched an electroshock treatment, and the young woman had died. I never heard the full story, but the neighbor did switch from psychiatry to family practice.

All of a sudden, the bus jolted, and the man’s eyes popped open, a startling blue in his grimy face, staring straight at me. He lurched to his feet, grabbed his pack, and got off at the next stop.

Recently I met up with a friend from my newspaper days. She, too, had eyes of a startling blue. She had written a few reviews for my books page, but then the paper died, she had a bad divorce, and we didn’t see each other for years. Catching up on each other’s concerns, I cited Syria, and she said that she was working with a young Syrian, through a group helping LGBTI refugees. Given the scope of the refugee crisis, I did wonder (silently) why the focus on such a niche category. Maybe she guessed my thought.“Listen, Francie,” she said, “What are you doing about the HOMELESS now? They’re still there. I don’t LIKE seeing them on the streets. I want you to DO something!”

She was right. After earnest but largely ineffectual years of volunteering, and some advocacy journalism, I had written a satirical novel 51YDCZ5H9VL._UY250_ juxtaposing Berkeley’s homeless with the gourmet revolution. I suppose that I had hoped that it might be read as a moral tract, despite the sappy cover. “Trickle-down gastronomy,” said the NYTimes.. “The epicurean culture collides with the culture of poverty”.  And the culture of poverty and madness, not least on the streets and in the parks of my neighborhood of Berkeley, Caifornia, continues to thrive.

By now, the homeless have come to fill the margins of the shrunken middle class. In the clement climates of San Francisco and Los Angeles, tent cities form new communities under freeway exchanges and in the parks.

Twitch Napier, who is homeless, sits with her dog, Shiva, near tents set up under the 101 Freeway along Division Street, part of a large homeless encampment, in San Francisco.

Twitch Napier, who is homeless, sits with her dog, Shiva, near tents set up under the 101 Freeway along Division Street, part of a large homeless encampment, in San Francisco, Feb. 25, 2016. An order by the city’s authorities to vacate the sidewalk tent camp in the commercial district has rekindled passions over the city’s longstanding homeless problem, which residents say has reached crisis levels. (Gabrielle Lurie/The New York Times)

An estimated one third of the homeless are mentally ill. And many of them are veterans.
During the Obama administration, spending tripled on homeless veterans’ housing and services, and the number in need went down by a third. Like too many of Obama’s initiatives, this has remained in the shadows.

We haven’t yet heard Donald Trump promise every homeless vet a condo. Early this year he did stage a benefit for homeless veterans in Iowa. By no coincidence, it was scheduled opposite a presidential primary debate where he was expected to come off badly. Not many of his efforts at distracting voters’ attention actually work.  Soon enterprising journalists dug up the story of Trump’s repeated attempts to get disabled veteran street vendors away from his Fifth Avenue property, which is already barricaded with topiary bollards. (Suggested campaign: Get unsightly old topiaries off Fifth Avenue.)


Perhaps it’s not news, but the emphasis now is to get homeless people housed first and treat their problems next. Los Angeles, like San Francisco, has not only a clement climate but a critical housing shortage that makes it next to impossible to find low-cost housing. Also just short of impossible is the treatment of psychological disorders and addictions in transit.

It’s taken decades, but measures to fund construction of special-needs housing are likely to be on the ballot in Los Angeles and probably statewide. Governor Brown has backed a $1.8 billion plan to use funds already in place for construction of housing for the homeless. California’s new director of Housing and Community Development, Ben Metcalf, seems to be that rara avis, an effective idealist, who has worked with successful housing programs in New York, Washington D.C. and San Francisco.

Another highly effective idealist is Alejandro Aravena, winner of the coveted Pritzker Prize, and director of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale.

arquitecto Alejandro Aravena premio Pritzker 2016

arquitecto Alejandro Aravena premio Pritzker 2016

I haven’t got to this Biennale yet, but I know that the theme is “Reporting from the Front,” emphasizing the potential for architects, beyond purely aesthetic concerns, to improve the quality of life for many thousands of people who don’t go to museums or biennales for pleasure or enlightenment.  The show, intelligently reviewed this very day by Christopher Hawthorne in the L.A. Times, “collects work from a range of architects operating on the forward lines of what Aravena calls “battles” against inequality, crushing poverty and environmental crisis and puts it on display with the informality of a journalistic sketch.”

The Chilean architect has devised original, low-cost “incremental” housing schemes where the basic half of each housing unit–roof, kitchen, bathroom–is built by the developer, and the rest, according to need (and means) is completed by the residents. Aravena’s firm has put the successful plans for four different projects online as Open Sources.  (Ben Metcalf, alert!)


Housing scheme in Iquique, Chile












The Ebell Theater without journalists


The elegiac tone of the 2016 Pulitzer centennial celebration, in a slightly musty but historic Los Angeles theater, suited  the program’s somber themes—“War, Migration, and the Quest for Peace.”

The unprogrammed elephant in the room was the general consensus that newspapers are in serious trouble. The Los Angeles Times, hosting the occasion with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, is healthier than many metropolitan dailies–but struggling. Its parent, Tribune Publishers, has just received  a $70.5 billion infusion from the ambitious entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong, whose other quixotic investment is a cancer cure.

Many states now lack any newspaper reportage from their capitals, much less in D.C. or foreign countries.. Given the digital revolution’s decimation of local newspapers and/or their staffs, coverage of city halls and state assemblies has almost disappeared.  Without journalistic surveillance—familiarly known as muckraking—government corruption flourishes, as it does in any banana republic.

War correspondents’ stories were reliably transfixing.  Terry Anderson, with seven years as a hostage in Lebanon; Shirley Christian, who reported on the conflicts in Central America, discovering that nine of her ten sources in El Salvador had been killed. Journalist-director Sebastian Junger (Restrepo) said that war movies were based almost entirely on other war movies, making Hollywood a major source of military history.

Sadly, there wasn’t much on the “quest for peace”.  The most memorable was certainly the photographer Nick Ut, whose 1972 photo of the “Napalm girl” was instrumental in ending the American war in Vietnam.


Everywhere,  photography showed up as the most powerful tool in journalism, documenting the horrors of war, the desperation of migration, whether from Mexico or Syria.


U.S. warriors in training—photo by Craig Walker

The other elephant in the room was of course Donald Trump. Press coverage of his campaign was cited, with curious specificity, as one of the two most shameful episodes in the history of American journalism.( I don’t recall whether the second was inadequate reporting on  U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Vietnam. Any would serve.)

Washington Post reporter Dana Priest explained drily that the excessive, uncritical coverage of Trump is because he is “clickbait”.  Many people, my spouse included, want to know, with their morning coffee, what outrageous position Trump has just taken. In case you’ve been in a remote village on the upper Amazon for the last ten years-the total number of clicks on links to news stories on your computer or phone screen determines investors’ decisions to pay for advertising on the news site.

Someone observed that an important function of the Pulitzer awards is to reassure publishers that it is worthwhile to keep losing money for another year.


Joseph Pulitzer. by John Singer Sargent

Oddly, nobody talked about Joseph Pulitzer, the very singular Hungarian immigrant who amassed the fortune that endowed the Pulitzer prizes in journalism and the arts. Ordinarily, donors and founders, dead or alive, are respectfully, on occasion even affectionately, noted. The low spot of Pulitzer’s career, his resort to yellow journalism in a circulation contest with William Randolph Hearst, was an early recognition of the “clickbait” principle in print media.

Stanford historian David Kennedy(Pulitzer 2000) decided to end the program with a boyhood memory. His favorite uncle had taken him on a fishing trip with a bunch of his oldest and closest friends, great pillars of the (New Haven) community. Afterwards, driving home, his uncle said, “’You know, all of us were together in France during the war. You wouldn’t believe what they did.’ He meant atrocities. He meant that I couldn’t imagine what normal human beings were capable of in a war…”

This is not to suggest that the Pulitzer celebration was unrelievedly grim. The box lunch, especially the roast vegetable option, was cheering. But it was a pity that the “Quest for Peace” had short shrift in the proceedings, as elsewhere in the real world.

Sad to remember that Barack Obama in 2009 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after his eloquent anti-nuclear speech in Prague.  Obama visiting Hiroshima in 2016 was eloquent again and still.  But his administration has cut spending on programs to stop nuclear proliferation, and caved on Pentagon demands for funding of “modernization” of  U.S. nuclear weapons. It’s not entirely clear which of Obama’s potential successors is less likely to lead us into more wars.

Pulitzer and Hearst made fortunes off coverage of the Spanish-American War, but the battles were fought with simpler weapons, and more soldiers died of disease than in combat.


“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” —Albert Einstein

Nega-centennials, Nega-nations


In 2016, a well-publicized Russian concert in the ruins of Palmyra just happened to overlap the centennial of the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement.  Russia had only a bit part in that hasty, furtive slicing up of the Ottoman Empire to please French and English interests.  The new borders failed spectacularly to transform tribal Syria into a national state on the European model, or even into a viable French colony. The Syrian civil war continues into its tenth year.

In Europe, the new designation “Czechia” was approved last week by the government, if not the people, of the Czech Republic. Elaborate historical justifications for changing to “Czechia” omit a more pressing motive– that sports franchises want a shorter, snappier name for their teams and equipment.

Czechoslovakia was created somewhat arbitrarily—not unlike Syria—after a world war.  In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the Moose Hall, a committee of Czech and Slovak activists drafted the agreement. Later that year philosopher-politician Tomas Garrigue Masaryk became the new country’s first president. Masaryk was nominated seventeen times for the Nobel Peace Prize that a later Czech president, Vaclav Havel, declined in 1991 in favor of Aung San Sui Kyi of Myanmar, formerly Burma. Just then, Havel might have been depressed about the impending breakup of his country.


worldThe Treaty of Versailles has been blamed even more harshly and more often than Sykes-Picot for setting the stage for multinational conflict and carnage after World War I.  Even now there’s some nostalgia for the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, dismantled and replaced by new nations with conflicting ethnic and linguistic minorities. Lebanon and Jordan were no longer part of Syria, and Slovakia no longer belonged to Hungary.

After my enthusiastic review of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I began to receive piles of freshly translated fiction by Slavic writers. I did note that Kundera was born Czech-Moravian, like Tomas Masaryk, Freud, Janacek–and my maternal grandparents. Still, I knew next to nothing about Czech history and literature. Auditing a meeting of Czech I on campus, I found that it was a conversation class, led by a small but dynamic American graduate student. McCroskyova argued that I would be a better critic if I knew the sound and structure of Czech.  Followed, a slippery slope into unexpected years with the Czech language and culture.

In 1988, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had ventured with my mother into Communist Czechoslovakia . After a tense crossing at the Austrian border, we stopped in the first town with a hotel. Sehr einfach, very simple, said the young innkeeper apologetically, showing the beds, foam pallets covered with large dish towels. Downstairs, an open kitchen spewed fumes of stewed pork and steaming bread dumplings.  Good beer, we discovered, flowed in the pub.

Next morning, we drove around the Moravian countryside with a map, looking for my grandparents’ villages. And we did find them, dreary, plain rows of stucco cottages, sehr einfach.  Our German proved useful.

At a bus stop in Mohelno, my grandmother’s village, we got directions to the cemetery.  My great-uncle Antonin was there—according to my mother, a cocky, annoying fellow, who travelled more than once to California to sponge off his relatives. Several other Peskovi were on the memorial obelisk to World War I dead.  On the horizon, a cluster of Russian nuclear reactor towers discouraged any idea of picturesque rusticity.

In the nearby village of Rohy, I was surprised to see my grandfather’s family name, Pozar, above the entrance to the most imposing building there. (Later I learned that pozar means fire, and the building was presumably the firehouse—whereas Rohy means simply Crossroads.)  Outside the village, a wizened German-speaking farmer stopped hoeing long enough to point to a barn-like building on the opposite slope, as the Pozar place. My grandfather’s eldest brother Alois had become the head of the family. That Alois was a hard man, said the farmer, confirming the reason my grandfather, youngest son, had left home for California.

After the Berlin Wall fell, of course I followed the Czechs’ Velvet Revolution, and was in Prague in time to see Vaclav Havel’s very moving inauguration.

In 1992, I returned to Prague to research a piece on the state of the arts in post-communist Czechoslovakia. Long story short: deprived of government subsidies and samizdat glamour, publishing and the theater were in serious trouble. The Golden Age of Czech Arts turned out to have been under Soviet domination.

At that point Slovakia was already chafing at the dominance of the Czechs. Even Havel’s remarkable human skills failed to keep the Slovaks in the federation.  In 1993, from the troubles leading to the Velvet Divorce, two countries emerged—the Czech Republic and Slovakia. 

Federations of any sort, from fourth-century Greece to twentieth-century Europe, often have short lives. The Hellenic League against Persia fell apart after sixteen years, and the Weimar Republic after fourteen.  Empires seem to survive somewhat longer, maybe by definition.  An empire has one hegemonic state, while federations involve, theoretically if not actually, equal sovereign states.

In any event, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and of Syria are episodes in an endless kaleidoscopic shifting  of national borders, altered to suit the interests of the reigning powers.  Once, land and treasure were the prizes; then oil. It isn’t clear what prize every country seeks now.  In America, not, surely, a state walled against immigration. East and South Asian immigrants now animate Silicon Valley, universities, finance, and the arts. Farmers, like my Pozar grandparents,  came to Galveston and then California in hopes of a better life. Central American refugees flee violence and seek  economic survival.


The Panama Papers, Now Playing

Screen-Shot-2016-04-17-at-11.29.48             Map from  ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists)


“The Panama Papers” could be the title of a mid-century noir starring Humphrey Bogart or maybe Alec Guinness. In fact it is an ongoing opportunity for our failing news media to research juicy data on global tax evasion by the rich and unscrupulous here and abroad. The 11.5 billion documents are from the files of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca and incriminate evenhandedly heads of state, corporations, and figures in sports and the art world. The prime minister of Iceland resigned immediately following exposure of his offshore bank holdings, and David Cameron has had to defend his father’s dealings. Putin seems to be condemned by association, and Bashar al Assad’s cousins are definitely enmeshed. (Much more will be revealed by the ICIJ on May 9.)

                                               Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca


Our press, after reporting, often gleefully, on the rowdiest and least morally serious primary campaign in recent memory, now has an opportunity to reveal to the U.S. electorate the shady investments and slippery connections of donors and politicoes at home and abroad.  There are no Clintons on the Panama Papers list so far, but some of their closest confreres have been named. Bernie Sanders will not have needed a tax shelter, and no doubt Donald Trump has other ways to protect his billions. Still, we can expect an exciting round of  follow-the-money discoveries in the coming campaigns, in addition to the usual salacious reminders of sequential marital difficulties on the part of the major candidates.  

Moral seriousness seems to be in short supply these days, not only in journalism and politics. This puts into high relief Adam Hochschild’s fine book on the Spanish Civil War. While the topic may seem remote just now, as the world warms, the Middle East implodes and Europe falters under the waves of its refugees, Hochschild focuses on a related issue: when is intervention in a foreign war justifiable?  

The poorly armed Spanish Republicans were unable to prevent Generalissimo Franco, backed by Hitler and Mussolini, from taking over. If the U.S. had officially joined Russia in reinforcing the ragtag Spanish Republican army, might that have forestalled the slaughter of the Second World War?  If the U.S. had more heavily armed an elusive “moderate” Syrian opposition against the Assad regime, could the bombing of that hospital in Aleppo have been averted?  It seems safe to say that in each case, the only certain outcome would have been greater bloodshed.

During demonstrations against the U.S. war in Vietnam, I remember a spirited peace march through through San Francisco on a sunny day, with my parents, husband, and two young children. It was one of the few times that I saw my father, an embittered veteran of World War II, suspend his cynicism.  And we did eventually get out of Vietnam, whether or not our antiwar protests were crucial.

 Demonstrations against the U.S. war in Iraq seemed less spirited, but then we were thirty years older, wiser, and sadder. Today, our weaponry and soldiers are still in Iraq, as well as Syria and Afghanistan—although many of the U.S. tanks and missiles have ended in the hands of the Islamic State and al Quaeda. But there are always more where those came from, given that the Uncle Sam is the largest arms manufacturer in the world, by far.

The important question of justifiable intervention in a foreign war is only too relevant, fiscally and morally, to the current presidential campaigns., “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk” by White House correspondent Mark Landler  (NYTimes Magazine, April 24) examines at great length the evolution of her belief in military solutions, including her long-term friendships with various army generals. of which David Petraeus is the most photogenic.



Landler scarcely mentions Hillary’s controversial role  in Libya, perhaps because the Times had recently covered it in an earlier pair of in-depth articles. The Times, which has endorsed Clinton, seems to have displayed unusual initiative in publishing these pieces, which conclude that American voters may be presented with “an unfamiliar choice, a Democratic hawk versus a Republican reluctant warrior.”  Donald Trump claims that he was an early opponent of the Iraq war, which he said would destabilize the region.  Fact-checkers report that he said no such thing at the time that he said it.

However these distorting, disheartening campaigns develop in the coming six months, unpacking the Panama Papers should result in more transparency about global networks of money and power.Whether the electorate’s responses will be too jaded to make the logical connections, time will tell. But after the election we can always look forward to the movie. For his part, Ramon Fonseca jauntily says that he plans to use the material in a novel.

On Easter: Greek Migrations Now and Then

In our high-end junk mail was a glossy invitation to an autumnal Aegean Odyssey,  exploring  Island Life and Ancient Greece aboard an Exclusively Chartered Small Ship (an intimate 110 suites and staterooms, 95% with private balconies). Closer reading revealed that only the western Aegean islands would be featured, giving a wide berth to those near the Turkish coast.


On the deck of M.S. Lyrial. [ Note French flag and panama hat.]

In other nautical news, last August the Greek government chartered a ship large enough to evacuate several thousand  refugees, mostly Syrian, from the islands of Kos and Lesbos, to mainland Greece. The first headlines called it a luxury ship, headed for Thessalonica, or maybe Athens. Later, the “luxury ship” was identified as a car ferry, which dumped the refugees among thousands of others thronging Athens’port of Piraeus, waiting for passage to more prosperous venues.


Last week, the port of Piraeus had 5,000 refugees who had crowded into its passenger terminals since the beginning of the year. Reports vary as to whether the new EU-Turkey migrant exchange agreement has made any measurable difference.  Meanwhile,  Greek anger at the influx has mounted, not least among the Athenian chambers of commerce and industry. President, Constantine Michalos said pre-bookings in Kos, Rhodes and Lesbos, the islands most overwhelmed by the waves of refugees, were down by 60%. “A perfect storm is brewing,” he said. “Tourism is our heavy industry, our only hope. If the refugee crisis, this global crisis, escalates, and tourism–the only sector that is booming — is hit, then frankly we are doomed.”

When Piraeus fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1456, it was known as the ‘Lion Harbor’ after its guardian beast, sculpted in the fourth century BCE. This noble feline was looted by the Venetians in 1687 and still flanks the gate to the Venetian Arsenal.

Piraeus lion

Lion of Piraeus



Not the Lion of Piraeus .  

Viewing the Arsenal lions with a young Hungarian friend who had been on a humanitarian mission, before the Arab Spring, building a school and a library– in Burundi.

 Yes, another Panama hat



Some  three thousand years ago, delegations of Greeks, driven by famine and ambition, came to consult the current Delphic Sibyl about seeking a better life. Evidently, the oracle shrewdly directed them to colonize as far away as southern Italy and Sicily. The Greek colonists brought with them essentials such as the olive and weaponry, but also their Olympic gods and their alphabet.The city states in what was called Magna Graecia soon became as powerful as those on the Greek mainland.

Feckless students on winter holiday in Athens, we too made a pilgrimage north to Delphi and picnicked irreverently on the altar of the Sibyl above the laurel canyon. Somewhat later, we did the same with two of our grandchildren.


(If Alma-Tadema had painted either of our picnics)

We happened to arrive in Athens that second time just as the Greeks, according to our local guide, were choosing to abandon the euro rather than tighten their belts.The Greek government was forced, as part of the bailout conditions, to cut nearly $10 billion from public spending in 2013.   They had built a stunning new museum next to the Acropolis to house the Elgin marbles, which remained, of course, in London.  There were strikes on Omonoia Square, and more were feared. Germany suggested that Greece might sell off some of its delightful islands to reduce their staggering debt. A Russian oligarch paid $100 million for the island of Skorpios as a birthday surprise for his daughter.

But on other islands…


A mountain of discarded lifejackets on the island of Lesbos

Lesbos has seen other migrations.  An estimated two thirds of the island’s 90,000 residents are descended from Greek Orthodox Christians expelled from Turkey in the 1920s. This heritage helps to explain their compassion toward today’s refugees.  In any event, residents of the island are nominated for the Nobel peace prize, and the hotels are all full of NGO and  UN humanitarian workers.

Another bulletin from the lively port of  Piraeus:  a majority interest in the port facilities has just been acquired by a Chinese shipping company, Cosco, which will put some 368 billion Euros into improving the shipyards and cruise ship facilities.

Has anyone suggested commandeering  all available cruise ships (and car ferries) in the Aegean, for temporary housing of the refugees, to be financed of course by the European community?   Cruise shipping lines might be amenable to charging less per capita, since the Mediterranean/Aegean cruise trade is down.

Meanwhile, another sort of boat people are helping Syrian refugees, in the Canadian community of Cape Breton.  Vietnamese refugees, now educated and embedded, are giving real money to aid the new Syrian arrivals.


The Tran family,  Cape Breton

Back in Syria, survivors of the civil war have been forced across the seas into uncertain futures. Tourism was strangled by the civil war that has been destroying its ancient monuments as well as its population, forcing the survivors across the seas into dicey futures.In 2010, across from the most impressive of Syria’s Crusader castles, Krac des Chevaliers, we tried to sleep in a busy inn where they were scrambling to build rooms for the hordes of tourists expected in the next season. That was before the castle was taken over in turn by the rebels and the government.


Krac des Chevaliers March 2014

In pre-history, as students wandering around in the bare hills behind Thessalonica, we were hailed by an old couple who invited us into their little shack for tea. Seeing our loden coats, they must have thought we were German. And in German the old man told us about his work on the (…) canal during the war and the old woman gave us dusty almond cookies. This was a strange feeling, suspecting that we had been welcomed for the wrong reasons.

Question:  should we have admitted, as we never did, “Wir sind amerikanische?” And now, are  Germans any more welcome than Americans, in Greece–or anywhere?  Just wondering.


Art thou Art?

Yes, a splashy opener—


Pont Neuf wrapped by Christo

Pont Neuf wrapped by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 1985

Some of us can remember when the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude was as often ridiculed as respected.

Now we have slouched past the centennial of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, when he introduced a piece of shapely plumbing as a work of art called Fountain, and “signed” by R. Mutt, its manufacturer. Although Fountain was not admitted for exhibition, it created a great stir–even in 1917, in the middle of the so-called Great War. Duchamp meant to mock all things bourgeois, not only artistic pretense, but the materialism and nationalism which had led to the war. That urinal is often reckoned one of the most influential artworks of the twentieth century.

Much later, Duchamp claimed to have renounced creating any art, “retinal” or conceptual, and passed his days playing chess.  Not until the end of his life did he reveal his secret project,  L’Étant donné, an erotic peep show tableau now installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. My granddaughter, Frances Dorothy, then a student at Penn, took us on a tour of the museum and its Duchamp collection . “What do you think of this ?” she inquired slyly, pointing to the door with the peep holes.

LED (cropped) at Philadelphia Museum of Art

LED (tastefully cropped) at Philadelphia Museum of Art

Tempus fugit.  A dozen years earlier, during our whirlwind tour of the Uffizi Gallery, Frances Dorothy’s central concern had been finding the door marked Uscita. We were in Florence to attend the wedding. belatedly cancelled, of a dear old friend.  The ceremony would have been in the Palazzo Vecchio, but the actual supper was in a wonderful country restaurant featuring wild boar and beefsteak. Alas, Frances Dorothy had just become a vegetarian after touring the market at San Lorenzo adorned with gory carcasses.

Not at the Mercato of San Lorenzo

Not actually the San Lorenzo Market–obviously farther north











Quite recently, an old friend, a distinguished art historian, remarked that artists these days are not making art at all—at least not art for her.  She said this not acerbically, in fact rather wistfully.  I was trying to interest her in Sarah Meyohas, a young artist I had just met who was working on what seemed to me big questions of art and value.

Waiting for the return shuttle from the Frieze art fair on Roosevelt Island, Sarah and I had started to talk, and didn’t stop until the bus ejected us on Fifth Avenue. This small, fresh-faced young woman with a student’s fall of long brown hair, had degrees from Penn and the Wharton School of Finance, and was about to get her MFA from Yale. She had already had shows of her work and wide press coverage of a quirky concept she had developed called Bitchcoin, a cryptocurrency where virtual shares are sold in the work of an artist, in this case Sarah. She had also been toying, she said, with the idea of replacing the international gold standard with an art standard. This was on hold.

After her Yale graduation, she planned to open a gallery in her apartment, show her work in London, and prepare for a solo show in Chelsea, on stock performance and financial gambles as art.  For a week she sat at a computer in the middle of the gallery and invested each day in a chosen low-performing stock until her investment moved the stock value up or down and she could record its movement on one of the canvases in the gallery. She wore a specially designed investor costume of gold pinstripe over banker’s gray.

During that week in January, the stock market plummeted drastically. One of her brothers called to say, wryly, “Sarah, whatever you’re doing, stop it!”


That aforementioned art historian friend had written long ago a particularly controversial book, Rembrandt’s Enterprise:The Studio and the Market, describing Rembrandt’s “commodification” of himself, what he had done to brand himself and make ends meet. The arch-conservative critic Hilton Kramer said that Alpers’ s book made Rembrandt’s work seem “just another counter in the dialectic of material culture.” Many critics, however, welcomed her perspective as acknowledging the importance of the actual creation and marketing of art.

In his later life, the atheist Duchamp was more explicit in his contempt for art as well as religion. In an interview he says, “The word ‘art’ etymologically means to do”, merely indicating “making” of any kind, while our bourgeois western culture manufactures the “purely artificial” distinction of being an artist.

Duchamp readymades like the urinal were intended to skewer fake aesthetics. He is quoted as saying, “I threw […] the urinal [and the bicycle wheel and the bottle rack] into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.”

Interestingly, the original urinal was never in a public exhibition after its initial production in 1917.  Somewhere along the way it disappeared, and only handmade imitations appeared in the many exhibitions celebrating its influence on art in the last century. Duchamp noted in a New York interview that “People took modern art very seriously when it first reached America because they believed we [Europeans] took ourselves very seriously. A great deal of modern art is meant to be amusing.”


Marcel Duchamp, by Ai Weiwei                                                       


Recently Sarah Meyohas reminded us that her 2015 Bitchcoin concept was actually NFT before the fact. Carping the diem, she has been auctioning a new edition of her Bitchcoins,  backed by individual rose petals from her 2017 artwork, Cloud of Petals. Eventually she may get around to working out her developing views of art and land value, or even the replacement of the gold standard.   






Early Postcards from Aleppo, Belated Cease-fires from Munich, and Picking Up the Pieces


Ancient Phoenician city, Amrit, founded 3000 b.c. Near Tartous, a fishing town on the eastern Mediterranean, of doubtful strategic value.


And more recently……



Last week from Munich came a triumphant announcement by foreign secretaries Kerry and Lavrov of major humanitarian interventions in Syria, to be followed in a week by a cease-fire. Celebration was muted, and within hours the news was qualified, deprecated, and disparaged by almost everyone not involved in the negotiations, and some who were. Shortly before the news of the projected ceasefire, Bashar al Assad had declared that he would persevere until he had retaken all of Syria, beginning with Aleppo.

Given that neither a military nor a political solution is in sight, and none of the players seems deeply concerned about civilian casualties, the war will simply continue until the entire countryside, not just parts of it, becomes a sandy quarry for shards of ancient civilizations.


In 2010, near the so-called Dead Cities, left over from Roman settlement; probably by by February 2016 reduced to gravel

 Perhaps the Bedouins will survive, with their camels. th


And the Alawites, with their dubiously valuable coastal bases at Latakia and Tartous.


Assad on guardian's door of Tartous museum 2011

Assad poster on door of Tartous museum in 2010


Shortly after January’s blizzard, exiting the Met Museum, I happened on a small display of postcards—faded pastel photos of Aleppo, Damascus, and Hama taken sometime during the French Mandate. These were a poignant contrast to an afternoon spent taking in many square yards of luminous Titians and Tiepolos, Brueghels and Rembrandts–not to mention the various treasures in the new Ancient Near East section.

Selections of the postcards were on offer in an envelope marked For the Syri an Relief Fund of Save the Children, $25, cash only.  This last is either an ironic or realistic touch, given that in 2015 the so-called international community pledged $10 billion for Syrian refugee relief, of which less than half actually materialized. According to the U.N., last year’s biggest donor, Kuwait, provided $75 per capita for Syrian relief, followed by Norway with $28. The United States and the European Union provided less than $5 per capita, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates did no better.

An old postcard view of the famous Aleppo citadel shows it largely overgrown and silted up.  It appears much better preserved now, even after the most  recent shelling of the citadel, by the government and/or by the insurgents, than in the early photos during the French Mandate. One explanation is the extensive restoration of the ancient site initiated in 2001 by the admirable Aga Khan Foundation, a non-profit international development agency established in 1967 by Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, Aga Khan IV, who is the worthy son of the less worthy but colorful playboy who married a movie star named Rita Hayworth.



The citadel of Aleppo has been destroyed countless times since the original temple was built on the plateau in the first millennium B.C..  Most of the remaining structures date from the 12th century, when the son of Saladin the Great excavated the moat, built the massive gateway and ramp, and most important, dug a deep well and a reservoir. The citadel’s slopes were faced with shiny, slippery limestone to discourage attacks, especially by night.

In 1260 the Mongols took the citadel anyway, beginning a series of invasions, from the Mameluks, who added a ring wall with 40 towers but lost it to the Ottomans in 1516. There followed three hundred years of Ottoman peace, which some now recall with nostalgia, and people moved back up to inhabit the citadel.  But an 1822 earthquake leveled the citadel’s buildings to the ruins that were being mapped and restored when the Syrian civil war began.  The Aga Khan conservation project focused on the outer walls and the Ayyubid palace complex within, while the Ottoman barracks became a well-equipped visitor’s center and cafeteria.  The restoration was more or less completed in 2007 and presumably now serves the present convenience of the Syrian Army. Neither foreign journalists nor independent archaeologists have been inside the citadel since the war began.  The extent of new damage during these latest years of fighting have inflicted will not be known for some time…..when a new assessment and reconstruction can be imagined to begin.

Is there anything to be said about these repeating cycles of feverish creation, violent destruction, and eventual restoration? The persistence and ingenuity of human efforts to repair and restore seem the only positive element of the terrible wars and natural disasters that have ravaged empires ancient and modern.

After the disastrous Florentine flood of 1966, an international rescue effort was carried out by art historians and students we recognized, even in their wading boots and mackintoshes, in the television coverage.  (Cf. my account,”Restoration,” which I just located online, in J-stor.) Eventually, much was learned about art restoration, but much less about flood prevention, and some say that the Arno is as much of a threat now as it was in 1966. 

There’s no way to make a transition to the disasters of September 11, 2001, where we had an agonizing, close-in view of the New York attacks. On that morning, we happened to have planned to breakfast downtown with a former student of my husband’s who was then city commissioner of culture.  In the ensuing months and years, this remarkable woman had the heavy burden of coordinating much of the Ground Zero project planning and construction. But the terrorists’ mastery of 20th century destructive devices left much less of the World Trade Center to work with than the ruins of the Aleppo citadel.

A group called The Future of Syria is already planning the details of the reconstruction of the country if and when the war ends. At this point they are estimating that the recovery will cost at least $100 billion.  Comparing it with the much-praised Marshall Plan for postwar Europe, which cost the U.S. $130 billion in today’s dollars, the Syrian plan seems a realistic if distant investment.

Today, this brutal conflict seems uniquely horrible in the number of innocent civilians killed, injured, and driven from their homes, but in the long view, perhaps it is not. Since 2014 there has been a lively debate, set off by Steven Pinker, as to whether our present bloody era is more or less violent than any in human history.

In any event,  the Syrian civil war is a kalaidoscopic fragmentation of its conflicting forces, rebel entities all vying to represent “The Opposition” to the Assad regime in a series of variously stalled peace talks. Research has shown that in any civil war, the greater the number of warring factions and of their international sponsors, the longer the war will last.   The Islamic State alone has at least four names, including ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh, and it has carved out for itself a role as the common enemy of all the groups fighting alongside or against the Assad regime. In North Latakia alone, dozens of insurgent groups have emerged, including irregular militias like the Muqawama Suriya and the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba, Jabal al-Akrad, and Jabal al-Turkoman. (Note that Jabal means hill or mountain.)  I can’t resist adding that the A’isha Mother of the Believers Battalion was the name of a sub-formation of the Storm Brigade, now shifting to the First Coastal Brigade.

“Men and nations,” said the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, “do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”
The Syrian postcard benefit project was the bright idea of a conservator on the Metropolitan museum staff, Jean-Francois de Laperouse, who works primarily with the Ancient Near Eastern and Islamic collections.  How much pain he must be suffering during these years of destruction of a culture that he knows so well.








His 18th-century ancestor was a famous explorer who mapped, among other places, the Pacific Coast of North America.

Comte Jean-Francois de la Perouse

Comte Jean-Francois de Laperouse



I would like to include here an interview with the living Laperouse, but I had to leave the wonderful museum, and return to the coast mapped by his ancestor.

Again: the cards are $25 each packet, payable in CASH.

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