Mary Clark, Traveler

Crystal Bridges Museum and the Spirit of Alice Walton

View of Eleven Restaurant from wing of Crystal Bridges Museum


Alice L. Walton is the 8th richest person in the United States, having inherited a great deal of Wal-Mart stock from her father, Sam Walton.  Divorced, with no children, she splits time between her ranch outside of Ft. Worth, Texas and Bentonville, Arkansas.   Most visitors to Bentonville  have business with the corporate home office of Wal-Mart – second largest corporation in the world. But with the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum two years ago, Alice Walton wanted to add another purpose to that journey and she succeeded beautifully.


I began hearing of this museum from friends and the press.  All wondered how such a first class art museum could land in a town of 38,284 inhabitants.  The answer lies with Alice Walton, who used to paint with her mother on childhood camping trips, beginning a life-long love and collection of water color paintings. There’s something about being a multi-billionaire that causes one to consider their legacy.  America has been blessed with Carnegie libraries and Rockefeller Foundation grants.  Following in this tradition is Walton’s desire to build an accessible art museum featuring American Art.  Walton knew museums drew from a 300 mile radius for visitors.  If a circle were drawn around each major art center in the U.S., a large blank area existed in northwestern Arkansas and Ms. Walton wanted to change that. 

View of Crystal Bridges Museum from above

Placed on the 120 acre family home place, Walton worked with architect Moshe Safdie to minimize intrusion of the museum on the beautiful natural surroundings of hard wood forest .  They were so successful that I was shocked as I parked on the upper level and walked  to the small building above ground.  Below, nestled in a ravine, was the complex of five connected buildings, much larger than expected and completely invisible from the road.  With glass walls peering into the ponds below, reflections doubled the beautiful late afternoon lighting.  

Sign welcomes visitors to Crystal Bridges Museum

From the moment of arrival, I felt Alice Walton’s presence.  Entry was free thanks to a $20 million grant from Wal-Mart with only a small cost to view the visiting private collection of Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz.  We had dinner reservations at the restaurant Eleven, placed on the bridge across the stream.  Soft live music warmed the space.  My companion knew the chef and he soon came out to visit.  I asked if Ms. Walton ever came to the museum.  Quite often, he said.  In fact, she would sit down with patrons and visit to be sure they were enjoying themselves.  “Did she happen to be here this evening?”  “Maybe,” he said.

Eleven Restaurant at Crystal Bridges Museum

After dining, we joined our guide for an evening tour, a wonderful time to see the museum.  Thanks to an endowment of $800 million from the Walton Family Foundation, largest single gift to a museum in American history, Ms. Walton and her advisors have been able to outbid others to present a cogent history of American Art.  A few pieces stand out.  Straight from the New York Public Library at a reported cost of $35 million is Asher Durand’s masterpiece “Kindred Spirits,” a mid-1800s ethereal painting of two men on a cliff pondering the distant Catskill Mountains. In sharp contrast is “Rosy the Riveter”, a crowd favorite by Norman Rockwall, portraying the strength of America in a single woman worker whose feet push firmly down on Hitler’s Mein Kampf .  A new arrival is the realist Edward Hopper’s somber Blackwell’s Island painted with his usual rich colors.   I thought it appropriate to display some works of Thomas Hart Benton for whose uncle the town of Bentonville is named.

Feet of Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell


As we were leaving, we walked through a gallery with a show of water colors that had just opened that night.  These were from Alice Walton’s own collection which will be permanently given to the museum upon her death.  Turning to the gallery’s guard, I asked if Ms. Walton had been there that evening for the opening.  He said, “Oh, yes.  About 6 pm” – the exact time I asked the chef of her. 

Plans continue for the site.  Our guide announced a recent purchase of a Frank Lloyd Wright home in New Jersey  to be dismantled and rebuilt on the grounds.  Shows and lectures fill the calendar.  Yet the art world buzzes as to whether the museum can become and sustain itself as a big player in America.  I can’t contribute to that discussion.  But while I missed meeting Ms. Walton, I do know it’s easy to feel her influence and commitment to bringing our country’s art history to those outside the big cities. Paris is 254 miles from Bentonville – just inside that 300 mile circle Alice Walton drew.  A four hour drive brings you face to face with America’s art in a stunning setting – not bad for a small town in Arkansas.  

Edward Hopper’s Blackwell’s Island
by Thomas Hart Benton
by Andy Warhol

















Crystal Bridges Museum  http://crystalbridges.org/ 

Leave a Comment

How did Siddhayatan Hindu-Jain Tirth & Spiritual Retreat arrive in Windom, Fannin County, Texas?

Acharya Shree Yogeesh at Siddhayatan Retreat Center

Master Acharya Shree Yogeesh comfortably sat in a cross legged pose on a dais in a corner of the large room.  An ivory wool shawl draped over his white cable knit sweater.  White socks peeked out from his equally light, linen loose-fitting pants.  His smile welcomed all into the room and encouraged us to sit on the floor in front of him as we prepared to interview him.  On the wall were a mantra in an ancient language and a large print of the Master with his awards below.   Behind us were volunteers who work at the Retreat Center.  Were we in India?  Maybe Nepal?  No, the Siddhayatan Hindu-Jain Tirth & Spiritual Retreat  was a short 20 minute drive from Paris on Highway 56, just west of Windom. 

Shoes left at front door of Main Building at Siddhayatan

I had heard of Siddhayatan from Kelli Ebel, a PJC instructor and friend.  She arranged for a group of Paris yoga students to take a class there, enjoy a vegetarian meal, tour the grounds and visit with Acharya Shree.  The yoga class was led by a fairly recent convert to Yoga practices. Even though Anubhuti , a nun in training, only learned yoga three years ago, her limber body and soft voice easily led us through the flow of positions. Basic vegetarian fare of rice, lentils, potatoes and flame warmed chapatis were served, prepared by the volunteers and those attending the retreat.  Indian sugary sweets capped the meal.

Recently converted horse barn into 20 rooms at Siddhayatan

Kelli led us on a tour of the grounds and helped us see the vision that had brought Acharya Shree to Northeast Texas.  It was a warm, winter day with a slight breeze and the Bonham water tower could be seen in the distance. A long ranch style home serves as the center with its great room used for eating and lectures.  In a large horse barn,  stalls have been converted into 20 simple rooms with two single beds and shared baths.  Forty beds had been donated by a Ft. Worth pediatrician.   To accommodate the expected increase in guests, concrete had recently been poured inside a huge hanger to be used as a lecture hall for 300 or more attendees.  A new dining hall was nearing completion while the yoga-meditation building stood nearby.   

In India, an acharya is a guide in religious matters or a highly learned man.  Acharya Shree Yogeesh’s name thus reveals his recognition as a living enlightened master.  He became a Jain monk at age 14 and holds a doctorate in Philosophy.  The Windom center is his fourth to serve a community.  He has established a school in India as well as ashrams in India and California and he lectures worldwide.  Acharya Shree assured us they’ve been well received in Texas.  When people find out he’s from India, they all say, “oh, yes, my doctor’s from India.”  He smiles when telling that story.

New Dining Room Almost Complete at Siddhayatan


Acharya Shree’s reply on why he came to Texas at all had some surprises.  He wanted fertile land and Texas is long on that.  “Texas has a lot of freedom,” he says and fewer laws means more freedom and less stress.  Texans are patriotic and volunteer to defend their country.  He recognizes this as important and necessary.  But what is missing here is we don’t follow the principles of non-violence. Even Acharya Shree knows this could be a quixotic adventure but feels strongly if he can bring awareness to one person, he can change the world.   

View of Bonham from the retreat center
New Lecture Hall at Siddhayatan

The Windom site was chosen because of its location at the highest point of Fannin County where the wind often blows, a reflection of God’s spirit or Om.  This gives the name of Windom or Wind – Om a completely different meaning.  His center has classes and retreats in such subjects as Yoga, Meditation, PTSD help, Silence, Stress Relief and Fasting and includes a children’s retreat.  Acharya emphasized his Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life, pulling yourself away from the violence in our culture onto a peaceful path.  Any follower, regardless of religion, can benefit from this move.  Visitors come from all over the U.S. and the world.

What makes this location unique is the plan to create North American’s only Hindu Tirth where pilgrims can experience a long walk (journey), be reminded of spiritual values (symbolism), and be in  a place of spiritual and healing vibrations.  According to the Hindustan Times, “miniature versions of famous tirthas of India will be constructed, thus giving visitors not only a chance to visit one tirth, but the opportunity to visit ten tirths at one time. Each tirtha will occupy at least 4 acres of land containing original soil and water from India’s famous tirthas.”   
For now, the tirth is a dream but Acharya Shree Yogeesh believes our lives are a turtle race.  With slow, steady, and thoughtful steps, all can be accomplished.   Anyone wanting to make that first step toward a less stressful  life should consider Siddhayatan.  Only its name is intimidating.

Helping Souls and Truth Seekers Become Healthier, Happier and Advance Spiritually.

Leave a Comment

What’s Happening in Ft. Worth – Changes in Just Ten Years

Mural at Sundance Square, FT. Worth


Our family has long favored Ft. Worth over Dallas.  Its broad, brick streets, lively downtown, connection to the cattle industry, cowboy culture, and art scene appealed to my West Texas heritage and my husband’s laid back nature.  With a son attending TCU, many trips were made across the Metroplex but it had been ten years since the last visit. Changes were notable while, gratefully,  the charm remained.

The Cultural District, owned primarily by the City of Ft. Worth,  continues to expand its contrasting architectural wonderland.  Previous museums were designed by some of the world’s best known architects – Louis Kahn’s near perfect original Kimbell museum,  Philip Johnson/Alan Ritchie’s addition to the Amon Carter Museum, and Tadao Ando’s serene Modern Art Museum.  The  Fort Worth Museum of Science and History’s  building, opened in 2009 with south of the border tones by the father and son team of Ricardo and Victor Legorreta of Mexico City,  acknowledges the area’s Hispanic beginnings.  Add in the newest addition to the Kimbell Art Museum’s by Renzo Piano, opened in 2013,  and you have a very eclectic campus, a kind of “World Fair agglomeration” as Dallas Morning News Architecture writer, Mark Lamster, would call it.  He concurs you can get a real overview of modern design in a very short space.  Go for the architecture and stay for the art.

Montgomery Ward Development

One of the most obvious changes in the last ten years lies in the Seventh Street connection between downtown Ft. Worth and the Cultural District.  Once the largest building in Texas, a huge, regional mission style Montgomery Ward store and catalog warehouse had been empty,  surrounded by other vacant buildings and open lots.  Today, the West Seventh Street Urban Village is a happening place.  Condos, restaurants, and retail now fill the Montgomery Ward building, serving as an anchor for the area.  Across 7th Street are more new and old apartments, restaurants, stores and bars.  I expect this area to be a success with a Target store only two blocks away along with a new small Food Truck Park. 

Cafe Modern

After an evening meal at the superb Café Modern in the Modern Art Museum, we heard live music from that nearby Seventh Street District and walked over to explore.  Incandescent lights strung across streets encouraged the festive mood and the area appeared to be gearing up for a fun Friday night.  We decided to relinquish the sounds to a younger generation as a quiet drink in our downtown hotel bar sounded more relaxing.  In returning, we crossed the brand new 7th Street bridge with its 12 lit stainless steel arches, not realizing it only opened in October,
replacing the aging 100 year old bridge.


New Sundance Square

Sundance Square in downtown Ft. Worth was also just introduced in November, 2013 after two years of renovation.  Actually, renovation is too small a word.  The former square had only been two large parking lots that could be cleared for events or fairs.  It is so changed, I had to take a moment to get oriented. Two new office and retail buildings have been built on the east and west sides of the square providing a density that had been missing according to Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc., a nonprofit advocacy group.  Between the two new structures is a more traditional bricked square with the now obligatory ground level 216-jet fountain  that lights up at night and four 32-foot-tall umbrellas to shade lunch time picnickers.  The only familiar item, the trompe l’oeil  Chisholm Trail Mural, continued as a focal point.   I have to admit I was underwhelmed by the finished product.  It wasn’t bad. I just expected more.  

I can’t note the changes in the last 10 years without mentioning a wonderful coffee house in Southside, another emerging urban design district south of downtown.  Avoca Coffee Roasters was named one of the best places for coffee in Dallas by D Magazine.  You read that right.  Dallas coffee shop owners were not happy to have a Ft. Worth coffee house win that distinction.  As you may recall, I’m very particular about my cappuccinos.  Our Avoca’s barista knew what she was doing and I was served a strong cappuccino with perfect proportions – worth the short drive from downtown.

The good news is all the great draws of Ft. Worth are still there – the beautiful Bass Performance Hall, Ft. Worth Zoo (far superior to Dallas’), Japanese Gardens, free downtown Sid Richardson Western Art Museum, Joe T. Garcia’s Mexican Food, the Historic Stockyards, Cattlemen’s Steak House, TCU football, etc. With its plans for Urban Villages and Design Districts, Ft. Worth’s forward thinking should keep it worth many more visits, even if they’re spaced a decade apart.

Leave a Comment

Seattle’s Space Needle – Forty Seven Years Later

Seattle’s Space Needle from Below – 

 I spent my 16th birthday on an unseasonably cold evening at the revolving restaurant in Seattle’s Space Needle.  Four years earlier, The World Fair of 1962 had spawned this intergalactic structure based on a napkin doodle made by Eddie Carlson while visiting a restaurant atop a TV tower in Stuttgart, Germany.  The idea of a revolving restaurant came from the project’s architect, John Ridley, making it the second such moving eatery in the world.  Construction began a mere one year before the fair opened – indicative of a different era of contract deadlines.  Despite the last elevator part arriving one day before, the Space Needle opened on time.  


President Kennedy signaled the start of the Fair by tapping a telegraph  key that triggered a radio telescope in Maine, which picked up an impulse from a star 10,000 light years away. This impulse was directed towards the fairgrounds to start the festivities.  The future had arrived – thus the theme of Century 21.  

View of Seattle from Space Needle

Forty seven years later, I again rode the Space Needle’s 10 m.p.h. elevator to the observation deck and joined a very international crowd absorbing the 360 degree view.  Eddie Carlson would have been shocked at the twelve dollars needed to buy a ticket as he couldn’t believe people would willingly pay to ride an elevator in the German tower.  It’s well worth the price just to get oriented in Seattle where the Pacific Ocean meets the Olympic and Cascade mountains with lakes interspersed.  Ferries laden with cars trundled across Puget Sound,  cruise ships lay below awaiting late afternoon departures to Alaska, traffic was surprisingly fluid on Interstate 5 through downtown, and snow covered Mt .Rainier could be made out in the haze.  

Little of the original fair remains.   Seattle was smart to maintain the Needle and the Monorail as they are heavily used by tourists.  Next door is the Pacific Science Center, former United States Science Pavilion, which started the now common trend of a museum established for science purposes.  Dallas’ newly opened Perot Science Museum is a direct descendant.   On a previous visit, we were highly entertained by getting to pose  as a rock band at the nearby Experience Music Project Seattle, founded by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft.  As I hammered the keyboard, my husband played the guitar and we sang “Wild Thing” before a video camera.   No scouts were impressed.

World Fairs continue today although the name has morphed through World Expositions into World Expos.  They began in Paris, France in 1884, used first to promote industrial inventions and products.  The 1893 Chicago and 1904 St. Louis fairs were of this genre.  Later emphasis was place on cultural exchanges as well as science and Seattle fit in this category.  Today, countries use the expos to showcase their accomplishments and demonstrate the ability to organize such an event as well as  attract visitors.  The next big expositions are set for 2017 in Astana Kazakhstan and Dubai in 2020.  Remnants of world fairs are found all over the world – Paris’ Eiffel Tower, St. Louis Art Museum (originally Palace of Fine Arts), Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the Atomium in Brussels, and the Unisphere in Queens, New York.  Many of these icons are dated but still hold their charm.

View of Space Needle through Isamu Moguchi’s sculpture


The Space Needle is beloved by Seattle residents and has been protected from encroachment of tall buildings, making it visible for miles around.  It’s a wonderful landmark.  We could easily spot it from the ferry docks  and as we sat on the old Gas Works Park, north of downtown Seattle.  At the Volunteer Park Conservatory,  artist Isamu Noguchi placed the view of the needle in the opening of his Black Sun outdoor sculpture.  The needle definitely deserves more than its  #35 ranking on Travel Advisor’s places to see in Seattle.

Other than being a bit smaller than I remembered, the Space Needle provided  a step back in time.  I discovered I was in good company in 1966 when  11-year-old Bill Gates, now Microsoft chairman and co-founder, won a dinner at the Space Needle restaurant offered by his pastor. Gates had to memorize chapters 5, 6 and 7 of the Gospel of Matthew, better known as the Sermon on the Mount, and he recited it flawlessly.  He probably wasn’t there the night of my birthday but  I got a great meal and a lovely watch.  I later forgot my watch in a bathroom in Bolivia but I have never forgotten the Space Needle birthday experience and it’s still worth the cost of the elevator ride.

Leave a Comment

I Believe in the Diversity of Small Town Living

This is a very different post from my usual travel stories but it is indicative of the extent that America has absorbed persons from all around the world,even into the small towns.  It also tells the advantage of small town living for meeting those who are different from you.  This is based on the “This I Believe” series sponsored by NPR and was done for a book club gathering.
 
I believe in the diversity of small town living.  One of the first persons I met in Paris was my realtor, 30 years my senior.  We had just moved from Houston where our social circle’s average age was 30 and I had never had an older friend.  We bonded, often lunched together, and she became my surrogate mother.  Her friendship was the first of many diverse ones I have had in Paris.   
 
In large cities, ethnic and age groups tend to live close together.  There’s the black neighborhoods and Latino areas.  Little Asias and Middle Eastern pockets have begun to pop up.  Unless they frequent  ethnic restaurants,  long time residents don’t often socialize with the newly arrived or persons of different color.   The opportunity to meet and work with these various groups, including those with age and class differences, is much higher in small towns, if desired.
 
Our children’s friends opened doors with introductions to mothers of color.  Together, we had bake sales, put on harvest festivals and planned the graduation night party. Coaching girls softball and soccer brought in relationships from the poorer neighborhoods and a connection to the Middle East and India.  
 
With a husband in the medical community, we have shared meals with local Pakistanis, Indians, Filipinos, Hungarians, Vietnamese and a doctor from Spain.  The dietary requirements at a recent dinner party included no beef for a Hindu guest, no pork for the Moslem, no meat for a vegetarian, and no cilantro for me.
 
This small town diversity is not entirely new.  Growing up in public schools in a small community in Texas exposed me to a variety of economic differences among my classmates.  And I had many an adult who followed my school career.    But the racial integration happened as I was exciting the system while the majority of Hispanics in our classes were migrants.  Today, the explosion of immigrants from around the world has now trickled down into small towns and our children benefited from this. 
Things aren’t perfect.  Racism still sits tightly with many.  Ignorance can be frustrating.  But I have danced at an Ethiopian wedding, attended a quincienera, toasted at an Indian birthday party.  We had kosher food at a bris, Thai offerings in a downtown restaurant, and watched black, white and brown vie for the top prize in a BBQ cook-off.  I have felt underdressed at black funerals and overdressed at white weddings.  Yet, the mingling offers opportunities to develop real relationships not available in ethnic clusters of the metroplex.  My friends from big cities are amazed and so am I.  I believe in the diversity of small town living.

Leave a Comment

SUNDAY LUNCH AT THE YMCA IN NAZARETH

Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Isarel

Upper church at Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth

  I don’t know when I first made the comment but it became the parting words of each phone call  as we planned our trip to Israel – “Let’s lunch in Nazareth.”   We wanted to drive from Tel Aviv to the Galilean Sea and stop at the Church of the Annunciation. After looking at a map of this very small country,  it appeared the drive would take only an hour (61 miles) making Nazareth the perfect spot  for Sunday  lunch.

The four lane road was very good as was the signage in English, Hebrew and Arabic and we soon exited into the largest Arab city in Israel.  Next door, Upper Nazareth is a new suburb with a high percentage Jewish population thanks to a large influx of Russian immigrants.  But the old city of Nazareth is about 70%  Muslim and 30% Christian.  Since most  of the Christians are Arabs, the area is a social scientist’s dream lab to study inter-faith relations. 

Lower church at Church of the Annunciation

Sunday is the day of rest for Christians and Moslems in Nazareth and we easily found a parking spot along the compound containing St. Joseph’s Church and Church of the Annunciation.  Inside, Christian tour groups took turns descending to the spot in the lower church where it is believed Mary received the annunciation of her pregnancy from the angel Gabriel. Some knelt and prayed.  Others said the Hail Mary quietly.  

Both inside the Church of the Annunciation and its courtyard are vivid stain glass pieces from countries around the world.  Artists created their vision of Mary and the annunciation in the style and tradition of each country.  The images and colors varied from high Renaissance to folk art to starkly modern.  Outside, we heard a tour group from Slovakia singing a dirge like homage in front of their outside Mary piece.  In contrast, when we ascended to the empty upper sanctuary,  church bells began ringing – not to any tune but simply in apparent celebration.  All we could figure was a ten minute joyful acknowledgment of the arrival of 12 noon.

Mazzawi Sisters in Nazareth

Surrounding the churches were  narrow streets of Arab owned stores, closed for Sunday.  While disappointed to miss the bustling market,  we found a few Christian stores open.  Inside one were two beautiful Arab Mazzadi sisters, whose wares included hand carved olive wood figures and many Christian pieces and jewelry.  They said we had just caught them as they were to close soon for lunch.  When asked where to dine, they suggested the YMCA of Nazareth.

The YMCA has a long presence in the Holy Lands, dating back to the late 1880s.  After 1948,  YMCA programs expanded into Eastern Jerusalem to cater to Muslims and Christians.  In 1964, Nazareth opened its YMCA with the organization’s  motto engraved on the outside wall , “That youth may grow in wisdom,  stature, and favor with God and man.”  Members of the Israeli Y organization include Muslims, Christians and Jews and its activities provide one of the few inter-faith opportunities in this divided country. 

YMCA in Nazareth, Israrel

After being assured of its good food, we drove to the nearby Y.  Inside,  a tour group was just departing, leaving only a few tables occupied.  But soon the 

YMCA in Nazareth, Israel – in Hebrew, English and ARabic

Arab church crowd began arriving.    Families with children, dressed in their Sunday best, filled tables.  Much visiting took place across long established relationships.  It was all very familiar – like a Paris restaurant on Sundays at noon – only we were in an Arab city in the heart of Israel.  

Small Plates served before a meal





We had loved the food in Israel and this restaurant was no exception.  It served the wonderful small plates that included homemade humus, corn salad, marinated carrots and eggplant, green salad, colorful peppers, and more.  A single order of 14 small plates with side chicken kabobs were enough for the three of us to have a healthy and filling lunch.  As we ate, the two sisters from the store joined their families at the restaurant.  Since their brother was the manager, they were obvious regulars.  

The recently defeated, long-time Christian mayor of Nazareth, Ramiz Jarai  called his town the City of Peace.  Maybe that’s why Texas A&M  just announced a “peace university” campus to be constructed in Nazareth – a place where President John Sharp hopes “different people from all over Israel would not only study to get a degree but would become more familiar with each other and foster understanding”.  The YMCA has been working on that for many years.  It was an unexpected luncheon site but it gave us as much hope as any place we visited in Israel that three religions can live side by side.  

Leave a Comment

Encountering the Gettysburg Address at Alexandria National Cemetery in Pineville, Louisiana

Alexandria National Cemetery in Pineville, Arkansas

National Cemeteries are simple and quiet reminders of the human cost of war. They are east to recognize.    In older ones, white gravestones line up in formation and for the  more recent established,  the Christian Cross,  Star of David and Crescent Moon of Islam  indicate religions of the lost ones.   Simple inscriptions on the marble reveal name, rank, branch of service, and sometimes even the unit.  World War II veterans may lie near a Civil War casualty with an Unknown soldier in between.  Mass graves are still a part of some of the original National Cemeteries and well tended grass surrounds the graves of all.  

On a recent visit to Pineville, Louisiana we stopped at the small Alexandria National Cemetery –  established in 1867 and  one of the earlier cemeteries built for burial of Union Civil War soldiers who died in the region.  Despite occasional wars and skirmishes after the establishment of the United States, no need for mass burials arose until the horrible losses in the  Civil War.  In 1862, Congress recognized the numbers of dead just from the North were so large that sites needed to be dedicated to individual and group burials.  The  Act gave Congress the ability to buy sufficient land to bury those who died “in the service of their country.”

One of several graves of Unknown Soldiers in
Alexandria National Cemetery

For war history buffs, national cemeteries are a travel destination. They reflect the growth of the U.S. and hold valuable information. The Alexandria National Cemetery is no exception.  As irritating as it must have been to locals, the 8.2 acres for the cemetery were appropriated by the national government.  The government was later ordered to pay $1200 for the land.  Once established, union soldiers  buried in surrounding towns were reinterred here.  Nearby Ft. Jesup was established to protect the western border of the U.S. with Texas.  After 1846, this was no longer necessary although some modern day Louisiana residents might think otherwise. The fort closed and 25 unknown soldiers’ remains were transferred to Alexandria.  

The last soldier killed in the Civil War was William J. Williams, who is buried at Alexandria.  The battle of Palmito Ranch took place at the border of Texas and Mexico one month after the official end of the war.  Mr. Williams’s 34th Indiana regiment  fought unsuccessfully with two Buffalo Soldier regiments against the remaining Confederate soldiers.  When Fort Brown, near Brownsville, Texas, was closed in 1909, the remains of Mr. Williams and 1537 other Union soldiers were reinterred at the Alexandria Cemetery.  He once again joined the ranks of 57 Buffalo Soldiers also buried here. 

North Africa American Cemetery, Tunis, Tunisia

Each national cemetery has its own stories.  In Arlington National Cemetery, graves of  famous politicians attract the biggest crowds.    I have often passed  by the beautiful Santa Fe, New Mexico National Cemetery on the edge of its downtown without realizing that Indian Scouts were buried there with veterans from all our wars.  In Tunis, Tunisia, I visited the North Africa American Cemetery, filled in the same symmetrical style with  graves of 2,581 WWII soldiers who died in the Africa campaign of Morroco, Algeria and Tunisia.  Honor is also given to the 3700 missing whose names are inscribed on a wall.  It was sobering to witness the reach of our soldiers in World War II and the price they paid.  

Gettysburg Address in Alexandria National Cemetery – Part of Campaign to
Put the Address in all National Cemeteries

Abraham Lincoln  acknowledged that price  in Gettysburg on November 19, 2013, 150 years ago this month,  dedicating part of  the Gettysburg battleground to a cemetery.  His three minute Gettysburg Address, delivered after two hours of speaking by Edward Everett, called the  battlefield a final resting place for those who had consecrated the land by the loss of their lives. It was no surprise then that the full Gettysburg Address was engraved on a black and silver, five foot tall cast iron tablet in the center of the Alexandria Cemetery – part of a campaign to have the famous words in all American National Cemeteries. After reading the address  amongst those who had died “that our nation might live”, I lowered  my head in appreciation even as I was saddened by the need for such losses.  National cemeteries are our sobering memorials, filled with stories, reflecting our history, insuring we will never forget. 

Leave a Comment

On Squirrels, Cracklins, and Alligators – Louisiana Leads the Way

Squirrel at Alexandria Zoo – This one’s safe.

 With our national chain restaurants and fast food franchises, it’s often hard to be surprised by menu offerings.  But in Louisiana, regional food experiences are available for the asking.   Recently, I joined four  other travel writers to explore Alexandria/Pineville, Louisiana and its environs.  They were from California and Arizona and more familiar with sushi than cajun, thought squirrels were for parks and alligators for swamps,  and had never tried cracklins.  All that changed on our trip.

We arrived in Alexandria, Louisiana on the first day of squirrel hunting season for which some school districts have been known to acknowledge by letting out classes.  At the luncheon tea room, The Cottage, a large table of women dressed in camouflage laughed about the men in their construction company office taking the day off to hunt, allowing the ladies to dress much more casually.   Last night’s  football game was called the Squirrel Bowl as it is the only game played on a Thursday rather than under Friday night lights so that players can hunt the next day.

Penny Dartigo showing off freshly made cracklins

No squirrel was on the menu and none will be.  It is considered a game animal and restaurants are not allowed to prepare it.  The question then was how to cook that squirrel you bagged.   Several residents couldn’t really answer including our native guide.  But at the Pie Festival in near-by  LeCompte, Penny Dartigo, a food truck owner from Grant Parish with pig tails and a nickname of Lady Bug,  said simply – smother it in gravy.  To do that, sear the squirrel, add onions and water, and make a roux, she explained.   “I made roux before I made rice.  The secret is to keep stirring.  Don’t stop until it’s almost burnt.”   She learned this growing up with her “grands” as a little girl standing on an apple box in front of the stove.  Lady Bug was right about the gravy as the cover story for October’s Louisiana Kitchen & Culture magazine made reference to the “chicken of the tree” and printed a Cajun Squirrel Gravy recipe. 

Terry Fogelman stirring cracklins


Lady Bug’s boyfriend was cooking cracklins behind the food truck and drawing an eager crowd.  Some even waited outside the chain link fence for the chance to buy it freshly cooked.  Called by turns a jambalaya pot or cracklin pot, the cooking vessel is large, black, filled half-way with oil, and heated by propane.  Terry Fogelman patiently stirred the bubbling pieces of pork fat with skin attached advising us to listen carefully for the crackle – like Rice Krispies – indicating it was done.  The dish is served as a snack in a small paper bag and was more appealing fresh than those commercial products sold in plastic bags in grocery stores.  

Stuffed Alligator Above salad bar at Tunk’s Cypress Inn

Alligators hang out more in southern Louisiana but their meat is popular throughout the state.  It’s in such demand that the price has escalated.  At Tunk’s Cypress Inn, a wonderful restaurant outside of Alexandria on Kinkaid Lake,  blackened alligator is served as an hors d’oeuvre.   Owner, Jimbo Thiels, took time out from cooking and listening to the LSU football game to lament the rise in cost from $3/lb  before to $9.50 a pound today.   He buys from an alligator farm where the animal was first raised for its skin but now is grown for the meat.  

Deck around Turk’s Cypress Inn on Kinkaid Lake


With his Louisiana drawl, Mr. Thiels talked easily of the various bow and gun hunting seasons including those for wild alligator, ducks, and, of course, squirrels.  He said his son could take us gigging for frogs, best found in rice fields when draining,  and he would be happy to introduce coon hunting.  Knowing that most of our crowd was from California, he admitted they never served anything organic except by accident.   Mr. Thiels then gave his mental recipe for cooking squirrel with the same roux requirement as Lady Bug’s but he adds onions, bell peppers and tomato sauce.   When asked how it tasted, he kidded with a straight face, “like cat”.   It was no surprise his 35 year old restaurant is a favorite for family gatherings,  Mardi Gras parties and receptions.

Alligator at Alexandria Zoo

I realized how pervasive alligator offerings had become when eating at the Lucky Palace in Bossier City, a Chinese Restaurant with a first class wine collection.  On a drive from California, owner Mr. Lim liked the size of Shreveport/Bossier City and opened his innovative restaurant in a modest motel.  If there’s such a thing as Cajun fusion, this restaurant is a leader, offering Asian Cajun BBQ Shrimp, crawfish rolls, and soft shell crab with duck eggs yolk.  But it was the Alligator with Garlic Sauce that made me smile.  Clearly, alligator meat has arrived.

While my previous experiences with Louisiana offerings were probably more extensive than my traveling companions, I enjoyed watching their willingness to try it all.  And  the  pride and ease with which the cooks used native animals, ingredients and family recipes simply confirmed Louisiana’s reputation for unique cuisine throughout the state.  Now, if they could just figure out alligator sushi for my California friends.

Links:

Alexandria, Louisiana Offerings for the Tourist

Tunk’s Cypress Inn

LeCompte’s Pie Festival

Lucky Palace Restaurant

Leave a Comment

Italian Restaurants and Albanian Owners – A Good Fit in America

Benny and Nada Mehmeti

When Bari (Benny) Mehmeti and Neire (Nada) Mehmeti bought Cappizzi’s Restaurant in 2001, I thought it interesting that we had an Albanian family in Paris who owned an Italian restaurant.  I didn’t realize this was happening all across the country.  Albania has a long history with Italy since they are across the Adriatic Sea from each other.  Mussolini annexed Albania to Italy in 1939 but had to return it in 1945.  Two other countries have large populations of ethnic Albanians – 92% of Kosovo and about 25% of Macedonia.  Since many ethnic Albanians spent time in refuge camps in Italy before immigrating to the U.S., they picked up the food and even the language.

Benny’s history certainly bore out this scenario.  By ethnicity an Albanian, he grew up in what was then Yugoslavia but is today Macedonia. Benny always liked America.   When a cousin returned to visit from the USA with tales of earning $100/week, Benny decided to escape to Italy to a refugee camp.  From there he made his way to Chicago where he joined his brother and uncle and began his now 44 year career in the restaurant business.  He started as a dishwasher at a Greek restaurant, progressed to busboy and then bartender.  When enough money was saved, he bought a diner with his brother.  Thus began 20 years of buying and selling restaurants, living in Dallas and Chicago, and finally in 2001 purchasing Cappizzi’s in Paris.

I asked him about the number of Albanians owning Italian restaurants.  He said if you see a small Italian restaurant, there’s a very good chance it’s owned by an ethnic Albanian.  Many Albanian immigrants  entered the U.S. in New York where they first worked in Italian restaurants.   Traditionally, the restaurant business is an obvious but challenging place for a new immigrant to start.  Once they learned to cook Italian food, they began buying their own restaurants.  The dad would cook, the mother  worked out front and the children helped where needed.  For Albanians, the Italian restaurant industry has been equivalent to Indians owning hotels, and Vietnamese working as nail technicians.

The original plan was to stay in Paris for five years but the Mehmetis  were so well received they stayed.  The restaurant quickly attracted a following thanks to Nada’s incredible smile and warm nature.  She never forgets a face and is always offering a helping hand.  They built upon the business that had been started by the two previous Albanian owners. Benny began to coach soccer, a sport he played wherever he lived.  He was so successful that their son, Ilme, is now the captain of the PJC soccer team.  Benny is a familiar presence at Ilme’s games, decked out in one of his 34 hats.

I decided to talk to other Italian restaurants in the area to determine if all were owned by ethnic Albanians. In Clarksville, Alek and Aurora Lleshi own the downtown Italian Bistro, rated the number one restaurant in that town  on Trip Advisor and featured in Texas Highways magazine.    Alek’s family has a strong connection with Italy as his parents lived in Florence but they are native Albanians.   Alek is eager to make you feel welcome. His speech is filled with appreciation for his family and how well  received they’ve been in Clarksville.  The restaurant has a loyal following who enjoy the food and Alek’s attention.

Johnny Dervishi

Roma Restaurant in Hugo just opened this year and is already popular.  It is owned by Beoijna Dervishi and husband, Luigi Dervishi, and by Luigi’s brother, Giovanni (Johnny) Dervishi, all ethnic Albanians.    Johnny is the youngest of seven children and the ebullient talker of the family.  He and his brother immigrated from Kosovo to New York and followed the now familiar pattern of working in an Italian restaurant there.  Johnny would make 300 to 400 pizzas a day.  Using family connections (Mrs. Beoijna Dervishi is Benny Mehmeti’s niece), they bought a restaurant building in Hugo and set up an Italian shop.  Members of their extended family own Roma restaurants in Durant, Idabel, and DeQueen, Arkansas.  Johnny described this area as if it were a franchise territory.

What I enjoyed in meeting these families was the consistency of their respect for the United States.  Two of them described their life here as “being reborn”.  All thanked God for their families and opportunities.  “God Bless America”  said Johnny Dervishi many times.  And I say, “ God Bless Albanians”  for their enthusiasm and contributions to America.

Leave a Comment

WHAT BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA AND PARIS, TEXAS HAVE IN COMMON

St. Martin’s Cathedral Where 11 Kings and 8 Queens were crowned

Visiting Bratislava, Slovakia was a late decision in our trip planning.  Berlin, Prague, Vienna – easy choices.  But, Bratislava?  Luckily, we included it to add one more major Austrian-Hungarian Empire city to the tour but found a surprising connection to Paris, Texas. 

When Czechoslovakia internally parted ways in 1989, Bratislava became  capital of the new country of Slovakia and Prague governed the Czech republic.   Slovakia differs significantly from its western twin – 
less prosperous and more Catholic and rural.   Its roots reach deep into Hungary, a part of the Habsburg monarchy for almost 400 years.   Strangely, the centrally placed Bratislava was a favorite coronation destination for the royals.  Eleven kings and eight queens were crowned at its St. Martin’s cathedral, including Maria Theresa of Austria.

Historical Bratislava suffered greatly under communism.  Two-thirds of the buildings in Old Town were cleared for highway and bridge construction as well as for building large, impersonal prefab apartments.  The comparison to its charming and well-preserved sister capital of Prague is tragic.  Today, thanks to increasing numbers of tourists, Bratislava has restored what it could and relies on its energy to be quite welcoming. 

Tourist Mini-Train

We arrived at the 1950’s train station with its small kiosks in front selling hot dogs and a sign encouraging us to  “have an amazing time in Bratislava”.  A taxi ride along the Danube river passed the intergalactic Novy Most bridge and stopped near town central where we jumped on a small, red mini-train that very slowly moved through the downtown pedestrian streets.  The driver identified disparate sites,   “On your right is St. Martin’s Cathedral, on your left is one of Bratislava’s many playful  manhole covers” . 

Marianna Gajanova and Betty Swasko

It was a warm spring afternoon and we later strolled the stone streets and sidewalks with some of the city’s 450,000 inhabitants,  waiting for our 3 p.m. appointment to meet Marianna Gajanova. She is a second cousin twice removed to Paris resident Paul Swasko.  Paul’s great grandfather and Mariana’s greatgreatgrandfather was Jan Szvacsko, born in 1861 in Slovakia.  An American  family member had tracked down Mariana’s family.   Paul’s wife, Betty Swasko,  arranged our meeting.  As Mariana walked towards us, we were all struck by her resemblance to the Swasko’s youngest daughter, Kristi.  The shared genes played out in the blond hair, height, and even their walking gate.  

Betty Swasko and daughter, Kristi Swasko

Mariana grew up in Cierna Lehota, a small agricultural town in the hills of Eastern Slovakia, with little to offer its youth.  Facing a post-communism 30 % unemployment rate,   she wisely considered education her best way out, choosing to study German in a bilingual boarding school a long bus ride from her hometown and then mechanical engineering at the Technical University in Zilina.  Her facility in German and engineering were the perfect combination to work in her country’s biggest industry – automobile assembly. 

Volkswagen was the first major automobile company to set up shop in Bratislava in 1994.  Since then, the company has continued to expand, producing through the years the Passat, VW GolfA3, Polo, and AudiQ7 as well as many parts for other cars.    Peugeot-Citroen and Kia followed suit in 2004 , meaning  Slovakia makes more cars per capita than any other country in the world and is known as the Detroit of Europe.  This industry’s presence has lifted many Slovakians from the countryside into relative prosperity.   

Happily, Mariana’s English was quite good, and we visited over a typical dinner of dumplings, cabbage, ham, sour cream, and beer.   When asked if she liked beer, she smiled,  “I’m Slovakian, aren’t I?” We learned Mariana is now an assembly planner for SUV door systems for Volkswagen and Audi  and her boyfriend, Rado, works as an internal auditor for CEIT Consutling that provides external support for Volkswagen.   They drive a Volkswagen, of course,  and because of expensive real estate prices in Bratislava,  have bought a house 24 miles outside of town.  Despite their strong earning capacity (especially in Slovakia), 25% of their salaries goes to taxes with the house payment eating up more.   They have to plan carefully to even visit her home 200 miles away.

Marianna knows she’s fortunate to have her job and to be living where she does.   She was only two when the regime fell but  heard from many that under communism, everyone had a job and seemed happier.  That may be true of her parents’ generation but Marianna took advantage of her country’s education and now participates and excels in a very capitalistic world. Her generation is the hope for Slovakia.  And the truth is, both Slovakia and the United States are lucky to have those Swasko genes. 

Leave a Comment