Thursday, August 09, 2018

Old Quebec

Last July we drove up to Quebec City.  This is a picture of us with our tour guide who gave us a one hour guided tour of the city from a horse drawn carriage.

When I was a boy I had a book about the fur trade in Hudson's Bay that fascinated me.  I also remember a book in our home about the battle on the Plains of Abraham between Wolfe and Montcalm, which gave French Canada to England.  Later I read of the raids originating in Quebec on the New England Settlements by the Iroquois, and then of Benedict Arnold's journey up the Kennebec in December of 1775 to attack the city for the Colonial Army.  It has in a distant way always been tied to New England where I have lived all my life.  Where I grew up outside Boston, there was a large population of French Canadian immigrants who, in contrast to other groups assimilated so completely that they were almost indistinguishable from native borns,  save for their French names.  

I took French in school and into college but, although I can read it pretty well, I can only piece together a few rudimentary sentences in real life.  Quebecois was unintelligible to me, to my great frustration at having wasted so many years studying French.  I imagine I could pick it up if I stayed here a year.  The French Canadians are adamant about sticking to their own language for fear of being swallowed up by the surrounding English speaking world.

It was a day long drive from the Boston area.  I looked into flying, because we only planned one weekend, but flying would have taken nearly as long as the drive because there were no direct flights.  I was used to driving from Vermont to Montreal and was always surprised how quickly the land leveled out after crossing the border.  The first time I did that I was 17.  Me and two friends bicycled from Watertown to Montreal.  The rural and mountainous land of northern Vermont suddenly gave way to tedious pedaling over flatland with open fields and rushing highway traffic.  The crossing near Shelbourne was different though.  The rolling green hills of the Green mountains continue for 30 miles or so before leveling out into the Saint Lawrence valley.

We had a good experience again with Airbnb.  We had a studio apartment with a private back yard for $70.00 dollars a night.  It was clean and private, although in a noisy part of the city, but we had been warned about that.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Shen yun at the Wang

December 30, 2017

We went to see Shen Yun at the Wang Theater in Boston last night.  The tickets were a gift from our son and his wife.  It was a cold night and I had a cold, but we enjoyed the show.  It was colorful to say the least.  The performers danced in brightly colored costumes in front of a color coordinated backdrop of spectacular scenery.  The dancers even had the ability to appear to walk into the backdrop and become animated action figures flying and leaping in the clouds and over mountains.
It struck me that no individual performer stood out from the rest.  They were either all male or all female and almost exactly the same age and build.  I found myself trying to fix on one person and follow them through the routine but it was easy to lose them.  They did a series of highly disciplined and highly coordinated dance routines each illustrating some story from Chinese culture.  Two of these vignettes illustrated the plight of Fa Lun Gong in China and told of the promise of salvation through this Buddhist offshoot religion.  In fact the entire show seemed to be primarily about promoting the religion.

The public relations people were as coordinated and disciplined as the dancers.  They had pictures taken of attendees smiling in front of a Shen Yun backdrop choosing people from the crowd as they entered the theater.  On the way out we were asked to make a few comments on a video camera interview.  We said nice things about the show, which were true.

I think I have to judge Fa Lun Gong from several perspectives, one being their opposition to the current Chinese government.  Apparently they are listed as a major terrorist organization and their performances are hounded by Chinese agents around the world.  Many members have been killed or imprisoned.  As a Christian, I see the religion as completely false and even dangerous.  And as an amateur historian, I am reminded that the biggest, most violent war in Chinese history, the Hong Qiu rebellion was started by a man who started a religion based on what he had learned from an American missionary.  The Boxer rebellion also was started by a quasi-religious group.  In conclusion, I admire them for standing up to the government, I reject their religion, and I think that the government of China has reason to fear them as more than just a religious group.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

     We went to Pisa on a tour bus.  The land around the city is flatter than further inland, perhaps because it is built on the delta of the river Arno.  And the ancient-ness of the city is not as apparent as you drive in as it is in other cities.  There was no visible wall or dense city blocks along the highway we followed to the Leaning Tower and the Cathedral.  When we got to the destination, the cathedral and the tower and baptistry were surrounded by a grassy field, unlike Florence or San Gimignano where there is only stone underfoot.  And, in Pisa, the Tower and Cathedral do not feel as if they are part of the larger city, but feel separated from it and isolated.  These are all just impressions from a 2 hour visit with very little knowledge of the city’s history.
      The tower is of course the site we all came to see and therefore spent little time looking at the cathedral and baptistry which are themselves wonders of architecture.  We did walk around them, missing the details, the interior, the history, until we reached the line to the tower itself where we had to empty our pockets for the guard .  This was totally unexpected and I exposed several hundred Euros to a crowd of people, something that I otherwise would never think of doing.  The tower itself really does lean, a lot.  When you are inside you feel disoriented because one is not accustomed to sizeable buildings pitching to one side.  The outside of the tower is a colonnade, or a series of stacked colonnades. Then there is a double marble wall with a spiral staircase winding up between them.  When we started up, I began to panic with solid marble to my left and right and people front and behind me.  Every once and a while there was a small opening in the wall to look out.  But I was sure for a minute that I would have to reverse course to keep from an attack of claustrophobia.  I took a deep breath and went on.  Italy is a place  of many stairs and much climbing. The steps themselves, made of white marble, had hollow footsteps worn into them.   At the top were bells and  tourists.

    The inside of the tower is hollow.  And running up one side of the inner wall is a stainless steel channel.  I wondered if this had been used to try to straighten out the tower.  I also noticed that, tucked between some nearby buildings and behind a wall, there was a massive device that looked like it had been used to pull the tower into a more plumb orientation.  The steel on the inside must have been used to add some tensile strength, otherwise pulling on the top might have toppled the entire tower.  

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Del Fiore

The Marble Cupola Above the Dome

     The cathedral in Florence is everything it was said to be and more.  The city is small enough and walkable enough and Il Duomo, is large enough that its presence dominates everything.  It, and the campanile by it, is so big and every facet of its immensity covered with so much detail that it is impossible to take it all in as one integrated object, as one building.
     We marveled at the outside and toured the inside.  The altars get lost in the space, the floors are intricately designed marble, the ceiling of the dome is a fresco of heaven and hell.  Although very much the architectural style of a Catholic church, it has a secular feel.  People are not there to be close to God, they are there as tourists, as we were, to gawk at the feats of renaissance man.  The walls are lined with gospel scenes and saints but also with frescoes and murals and coats of arms devoted to the wealthy merchants who built the cathedral as a mark of their own success and standing amongst the city states of Italy and the rest of Europe. 
     I have to give credit to the men who built it, not just to the designers and the financiers but to the masons, carpenters, wagoneers, metalsmiths, laborers, because I know what it is to execute the design of another, what it is to work daily in all kinds of weather at repetitive, difficult, physical tasks, to solve mechanical problems as they arise, to put your hands to the blocks of stone, to smell the mortar and hear men admonishing, encouraging, cursing one another as the building goes up.  I know what it is to be totally absorbed in the completion of a mechanical task, to craft it with your hands to an ideal cradled in your mind.  I wanted to know how they did it.
     The highlight for me was the climb to the top of the dome.  You start by going up a circular stone stairway for, (here I am guessing at heights and dimensions), several hundred feet to emerge at the edge of an octagonal drum on which the dome itself is built.  From this height you can look down into the main part of the cathedral to see tourists, already small and distant  and you can look up at the ceiling inside the dome to see high above the opening to the cupola, itself the size of a small building. 

     From here you climb inside the double layered dome up another stairway where you can see some of the internal structure.  Most of the structure is buried in the mass of masonry under your feet.  Your head brushes against the outer dome and occasionally you pass a small window looking out on Florence.  Each time you are a little further from the ground.  At the top you climb out onto the base of the cupola.  You cannot go inside the cupola which opens downward into the church ,just walk around it on the edge of the roof.  At the very top there is an eight foot diameter brass ball which is big enough to stand inside of but actually gets lost in the enormity of everything else.  

Saturday, September 10, 2016



     We woke up in our house high above Positano to another beautiful day.  We went to the cafĂ© Il Pertuso for coffee and then took the bus into town,  In town there were many tourists, many giftshops, yachts and one navy patrol ship in the harbor.  I learned some new italian words; moglie, spiaggia.   I had my first look at a newspaper since we left.  There was another shooting, this time of 5 police officers keeping watch on a parade of protesters.
     Another hot, hair-raising ride back to Monte Pertuso from the center.  We ate again at the local   restaurant near the apartment.  It was La Festa de la Madonna, church bells rang and fireworks went off.  They were shot from the cliff side at 3 locations above us and exploded high over our heads where we were eating.  The flashes lit the face of the mountain and the white stone mixed with the red green and  blue of the fireworks as part of the display.
     The next day I climbed up to the hole in the mountainside that gives Monte Pertuso its name and saw the remnants of the rocket launchers.  I had climbed a long flight of stone stairs through terraced gardens to a well-worn forest trail until I came out at the puncture in the mountain.  From there, there was a rusted steel ladder that climbed to the top of the needle-eye.  I thought that might be the very top, but later when I looked at the entire mountain from below, I saw that it was just the beginning of the mountain which kept ascending far beyond that.

Sunday, September 04, 2016


We arrived in Florence in the afternoon and took a taxi from the train station to our Airbnb apartment.  Our hostess who arrived on a motor scooter about ten minutes after we did was named Monica.  She took me up to the fourth floor of the building where there was a small but clean and modern apartment looking out on the building across the narrow cobblestone street.  Pam had walked up to a little store and returned with the fixings for mozzarella salad.  We called out the window for her to come up.
      Florence was the one city I wanted to see having read the story of the building of the cathedral  Brunelleschi’s Dome  by Ross King.  The streets are narrow,  paved with basalt stones and open into spectacular piazzas, each one with architecture and art you couldn’t dream existed.  Cars are banned or limited throughout most of the city.  There are small family owned grocery stores and little restaurants in every conceivable corner of the city.   There are fantastic, enormous, intricately carved doors everywhere as if each local renaissance merchant had to outdo the other with the size of his entry door and its knockers.

Thursday, September 01, 2016


     We arrived in Venice on Trenitalia.  Our instructions from our airbnb host were to take the water bus to San Marco square.  Of course, like any American, I know what Venice is, but not really.  I realize this when I see it.  It has become more of a tourist attraction now than a city, but the depth of history here is evident at every turn.  Piazza San Marco, I thought was just another piazza.  As I struggled across it with our suit cases in tow, chasing the fast walking host and my wife, I realize that this is no ordinary piazza, even by Italian standards. 

     I remember reading once that Venice was founded by  Romans fleeing the advancing armies of Attila the Hun in the fifth century.  I knew it was sinking and that it was built in the water, and that there were gondolas.  I did not know that it breaths power and wealth. Its glory is that of another age, but it still stands.  It could be Disney World, but it is not.  It was not built to be a tourist attraction.  It was for centuries the heart of a dynamic creative and prosperous economy and society. 
We only planned one night in Venice.  Our main destination was Florence.  We arrived late in the day and checked in just after dark.  There were boats and gondolas just outside the windows.  Trash, we were told was picked up in the morning by a boat.  And we were told by our host that in a real high tide the first floor would fill up with water, at least up to small internal dams just inside the doors. 
We went out to find a place to eat knowing nothing about where we were, except we knew how to find our way back to Saint Mark’s square.  We found an osteria and The food was good and we sat for a while and had a bottle of wine.  The head waiter talked to us for a while.  He was Philipino but spoke English, Italian, Spanish, French and some German, as well as Tagalog. We had heard him easily slipping into the language of whatever table he was working on.  He told us he owned land in the Philippines and supported most of his family at home.  He planned to retire there someday. 
     The next day we had an outdoor breakfast in Saint Mark’s square and marveled at the architecture.  About midday we caught the train to Firenze.  It is interesting pulling out of the dense and ancient city of Venice, crossing over water for a ways and seeing the industry and shipping spread out over the wide Adriatic coast, with all of Europe to the immediate north and all of Italy to south.