Mary Clark, Traveler

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

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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.

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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. 

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Rockwall, Texas – Great Week-End Destination

The Harbor at Rockwall, Texas

Pop quiz – Where does Rockwall, Texas get its name? I felt  foolish after learning the answer.  Rockwall is named after the rock wall discovered in the 1850’s  – just about the time the community was formed.   At five miles long, it comes with its own controversy – is it a geological formation or the work of a lost civilization?  History 2 Channel will try to answer that in a November program called “America Unearthed.”   Regardless of the answer,  Rockwall is a surprisingly pleasant week-end getaway spot.

Rockwall is old for Texas, platted in 1854, ten years after Paris.    It was a stop on the National Road of the Republic of Texas that  brought early settlers to Dallas after crossing the Red River near Clarksville.  Rockwall stayed viable with agriculture and later, the railroad, until Dallas’ economy took off in the 1900s and left the town behind.

More recent history explains how a sleepy, little Texas town  (11,000 residents in 1990 ) grew 400 per cent in 20 years  to become one of the wealthiest in the state (median household income in 2012 $77,500 compared to $49,000 for Texas).  Two decisions changed the community’s trajectory.  In 1969, construction of Lake Ray Hubbard, bisected by the recently completed I-30,  turned Rockwall into a lake town.  Dallas just had to grow  enough for Rockwall to scoop up commuters.  And in 2003, local government entities  and developers, Sara and Rob Whittle, signed on to a vision of the Harbor.  The City committed lake front park space, the County gave tax incentives and the Whittles built a lakeside Hilton Hotel in 2008.  New stores and restaurants followed along the boardwalk.  Summer concerts and a sunset harbor cruise appeared.  It would be easy to just hang around the lake but there’s more downtown.

Funky Life House Bakery and Disc Golf

I met Bethany Browning for coffee at The Life House  Bakery, north of the  Rockwall square.  Bethany was Main Street Coordinator in Paris before landing the same position with Rockwall.  She lives ten minutes from work with her husband, Jason, and their daughter.   They have a lake view from their home and can confirm the town’s motto – a small town feeling with big city amenities.  She confesses to making a “run” on the box stores along I-30 every week or two but her heart is with Main Street.

Truthfully, downtown Rockwall does not have the “bones” to build on that Paris does.  It was a poor relation compared to Paris in earlier years.  But what Rockwall lacks in historical buildings, it makes up with money.  An $8.5 million bond issue passed recently to renovate downtown.  Sidewalks will be replaced, seating walls built, a pedestrian street developed, and parking lots brought close. Three solid restaurants already stand on or near the square – Bin 303, Zanata’s and The Fatted Calf (which has a wonderful Sunday Brunch).  New stores are opening.  In visiting with employees, waitresses, and owners, all love being downtown and in Rockwall.  The designer at Expressions Home Decor increased her walk-in traffic significantly since her move to the center of town.   A waitress at Bin 303 confessed she never crosses the lake as everything she needs is close-by.  At Enjoy, a kitchen store, the salesperson had only recently relocated to Rockwall from Dallas and hoped never to return.

With an average age of 36 (you read that right), that population’s interests are emphasized.  The City has miles of trails built by the city and required of  developers.   An unusually large Home Brewer Association provides beer tasting at events.  Two heavily used disc golf courses are available.  The San Martino Winery hosts live music events weekly.    And, of course, the lake fills with boats of all kinds on week-ends.

Bethany realizes much is happening in Rockwall.  An e-mail that day named eight new restaurants coming to town, including  Mellow Mushroom, Fuddrucker, Dunkin Donuts and The Londoner.   With growth, comes traffic and Rockwall has this in spades.  I-30 speaks for itself but the numbers of trucks and cars passing alongside downtown was also notable.  The city and county are small and are quickly being filled in meaning the presence of road construction is constant.   But when faced with rising student population, the Rockwall school district chose to build a second 4-A high school rather than offer one huge 5-A school – another attempt to keep a small town feel to the community.

Rockwall is an easy drive from Paris with big city restaurants, hotel, waterfront, trails and shopping. If you are there on a week-day, don’t miss the new beautiful, cathedral like Rockwall County Courthouse with its state of the art electronics and a touching veterans memorial next door.  And Bethany let me in on a little known route.    When returning to Paris, try driving north on 205 to Farmersville and then take Highway 78 to 82.    You’re quickly out of developments and into rolling hills – a lovely drive back home after your stay in Rockwall.  It’s worth the extra time, she promises.

 Bin 303 – Bin 303 Website – Try the Bin Burger

Zanata’s – Zanata’s Website
The Fatted Calf – The Fatted Calf Website 

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Pension Pertschy, A Palace Revisited 44 Years Later

Reception Area on Second Floor of Pension Pertschy

I remember the room – beds for six, high ceilings, large windows opening to the street below.  It was 1969 and my family had been traveling in Europe for weeks, arriving in Vienna on July 17th.  The large, friendly woman in reception at the Pension Pertschy offered to house us all in one room.  “Talk about togetherness”, commented my mother in her diary.  Mom had booked the pension upon  recommendation of “Europe on $5 a Day”, the book that opened up a world of economic travel in Europe.  In the heart of historic Vienna, the hotel’s location allowed us to walk to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna State Opera, Spanish Riding School and the Albertina museum.  

Finished Exterior dates from 1605

The building had been a palace as early as 1605 for the Italian Cavriani family, who were drawn to Vienna for the fighting horses.  They married into the royal Hapsburg family and  constructed the five story home around a courtyard  that fronted two parallel streets.  Their wealth is reflected in the finished building on both exteriors.  Rooms later became apartments and then hotel rooms.  

Fast forward forty four years to 2013.  My friends and I were planning a trip to Vienna and one recommended the Pension Pertschy based on its location and price.  Only after reviewing my mother’s diary did I realize it was the same hotel we had used in 1969.  Since it was still owned by the same family, I wanted to know what had happened in the last four decades  and asked to speak with a family member upon arrival.  

Licia Pertschy is married to Thomas, son of the original owners of the pension.  His father was Hungarian whose family left for Canada when the Communists arrived.  His mother was German who moved to Canada for the adventure.  They met in Toronto, married and had two children there.  Mr. Pertschy’s sister, Therese (Aunt Resi), wrote them of an opportunity to buy a pension in Vienna.  After purchasing the pension together in 1964, the family moved to Vienna where their son, Thomas, was born.  Aunt Resi would have been the woman who greeted us in 1969.  

The business began with a reception area, washroom, and 12 rooms that had housed military students from a nearby academy.  Being named in “Europe on $5 a Day” was a huge boost for them.  Over the years, the family added rooms as they became available with 55 rooms now used by guests.   In 2005, a large, exterior elevator replaced the small, cramped one we used in 1969.  The family works hard to maintain its four star rating, a rating system that is less about luxury and more about safety, security and certain amenities.

Breakfast Buffet at Pension Pertschy

Today, the rooms are not as large although they can still offer spacious rooms for a family. The baroque exterior has been maintained.   Televisions and wifi are now standard.   Its location still can’t be beat.  And breakfast has improved dramatically from a Continental breakfast of a solitary hard roll, jam, butter and coffee to a buffet of 6-8 cheeses, boiled and scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, many breads (really good ones with grains similar to Paris Bakery), mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, basil, chopped fresh fruit, chocolate cake, local jams, honey and honey comb, six kinds of cereal, dried apricots, raisins, seeds, prunes, fresh plain and sweet yoghurt and great coffee.

Breakfast Buffet at Pension Perstchy


Their guests have always included Americans but I didn’t hear many of our accents at breakfast.  Licia noted a larger number of Spaniards now visiting.  Statistics bear out the changing face of visitors to Vienna.   Germans and Austrians are the largest groups, as always.  But in 2012,  Russian tourists surpassed the number from the United States, China’s travelers grew by 40% and Saudi Arabians’ by 76% – all contributing to a record year.  

Courtyard of Pension Pertschy

Licia mentioned some of the new, large hotels built in the last two years, including a Kempinski, Four Seasons, Park Hyatt, and Marriott hotel – a surprisingly  late appearance of these hotel chains.  She thought Vienna’s designation as one of the best places to live in the world is contributing to the increase in attention.   In contrast to the United States, Europe has long had a tradition of independent, family owned hotels with only half the hotel rooms in Vienna being “branded” or associated with a chain.  The rest are under private management such as the Pension Pertschy and many could qualify as boutique hotels.  Whether the Pertschy family will continue the hotel another generation is not decided.  But if I ever returned to Vienna, I would love to introduce the Pension Pertschy to our grandchildren.  

Pension Pertschy Website

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BERLIN’S MEMORIALS ACKNOWLEDGE THE PAST

Memorial to the Roma and Sinti Victims

Monuments and memorials can  commemorate heroes  such as Washington and Lincoln  or acknowledge sacrifice of Vietnam’s soldiers.  They are also useful to publicly display regret at a past event.  In this mea culpa category, Berlin, Germany has finally owned up. 

It took 60  years for Berlin to build a memorial to the six  millions  Jews killed under Hitler’s regime.  The delay had its reasons.  Facts were painful to face.   Many Germans were ignorant of the holocaust and placed blame on their leaders.  Berlin was divided. Germany was busy rebuilding a broken country.  Only after the two Germanys reunited in 1990, worked out the many details and finances of reunification, and moved the capital back to Berlin  was the country ready to face its past here.  And,  as with most memorials, controversy surrounded the attempts to display the compromised past.

Every decision for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe  was debated.  Location (Berlin or nearer a concentration camp)  and design (12 artists submitted ideas) had to be approved.   Who was being remembered – just Jews or others murdered?  And an unexpected controversy appeared when the IG Pharmacy Company provided anti-graffiti paint for the blocks despite the company’s association with producing the nerve gas used in concentration camps.  These agitations disappeared once the memorial was completed.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe










No names are engraved on the 2711 solid concrete stele and each is a unique size.  The arrangement of the blocks yields strong images –  a graveyard, cattle cars, camp barracks.  From the outside, it is not obvious how deep the blocks descend, symbolic of the  public’s ignorance of the Jews’ plight.  From the inside,  visitors feel the hopelessness of internment in a camp.  Yet children dashed about, playing hide and go seek as teenagers huddled here and there – the classic image of life moving on which it has.  After World War II, only 5,000 Jews remained in Berlin out of 180,000.  Today that number has grown to 40,000 made up mostly of Russian Jews who have been welcomed by the city.

To acknowledge other groups targeted by the Nazi regime, Berlin built more memorials.  Gays had to also wait until 2008 for  their own monument.  A slit window in a concrete enclosed structure allows visitors to watch a video of a gay couple kissing.  Its controversy centered on whether to include lesbians as most of the discrimination occurred against male couples.  As a compromise, the film alternates every two years between female and male couples. 

At the Gypsy memorial to the Roma and Sinti victims, just opened in 2012,  traditional Roma music plays.  Designed by Israeli artist Dani Karavan, the still water pool features a triangular stone pillar, symbolic of the triangle badge required to be worn by this population.  A new flower is placed in the center daily.  

Outdoor Reading Library at Bebelplatz

On May 10, 1933, 20,000 books were burned at the Bebelplatz to rid the pure Aryan population of ‘dangerous’ authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Jack London.   Today, a window on the floor of the plaza looks down into a room lined with empty bookshelves.  This is known as a voided monument – one that marks what is lost.  Heinrich Heine’s prescient quote from 1820 lays nearby , “This is only a prelude – when one burns books, one burns people.”  On the day of our visit, the local library had appropriately turned the plaza into an outdoor reading space, complete with reclining chairs, bean bags and lots of books.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Concentration Camp Victim

A final memorial was the most moving.  In an old artillery storage building, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Concentration Camp Victim lies beneath a single Pieta like figure.  Above her, light pours in through an open skylight.  When it rains on the statue, she appears to be crying.  

The subject of memorials in Berlin generates strong feelings among those who feel it necessary to acknowledge culpability and those who feel it’s time to move on.  Complaints of too much hand-wringing are becoming more common.  As our guide said, “Memory is tricky in Berlin”.   With the Nazi and Communist histories, the argument will always be what to remember and what to forget.  Monuments and memorials make it much harder to forget.  

Recommended Guide – Heather Mae Ellis, an American living in Berlin.  
Contact her at orangeheather@googlemail.com  

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Rita Gillooly’s Boston

Rita Gillooly, Mary Clark and Beth Ferree – Friends from Houston days

I met Rita Gillooly in the lounge of the University of Houston law school in 1974.  She was also eating a sack lunch alone.  We were both transfer students from other law schools and naturally gravitated to each other.  Our differences were stark despite her being only three days older.  Rita grew up in public housing in Boston and I was a farmer’s daughter from the panhandle of Texas.  No one in her family drove a car and I had my license at age 14.   My family traveled extensively and hers got no further than a summer jaunt to Cape Cod.   Yet, we bonded, stayed in touch, and in June, I finally got to experience Boston through Rita’s history.

117 Garfield Avenue is on the right

The Gillooly family immigrated from Ireland to join the many Irish in Boston.  With such an unusual name, anyone claiming it had to be kin to Rita.  She knew of 35 first cousins.  Her father delivered mail and her mother cared for the four children.  Rita candidly disclosed that her father’s drinking caused instability in the family.   They moved often with occasional residence in public housing  (Rita attended 5 schools in 7 years), before settling in Hyde Park, a nice neighborhood south of Boston proper.  Though surrounded by middle class homes, her cul-de-sac ended in several two story, three bedroom public apartment buildings. Theirs was number 117 Garfield Avenue.

When we visited it, Rita was shocked at the quietness – empty stoops, vacant street, and no hordes of children playing on the back yard monkey bars.  She noted window air units had been added since her time, possibly the source for the minimal activity.  Rita pointed out one apartment where she had done Mrs. Carroll’s hair and the O’Grady and O’Hara families’ homes where she babysat.  All earned money went for clothes as she avoided the outfits bought by her mother at  Salvation Army’s thrift store.

Boston bomb memorial in Copley Square

Thanks to her good grades and teacher recommendation at the end of 6th grade, she was told she would be going to Girls Latin School  – an offshoot of the oldest public school in America,  one with high expectations and  dedicated to college preparation for girls. To get to the school on Codman Square, Rita had to take a bus, trolley and bus again.  After school,  students would hang around downtown Boston, including Copley Square where the makeshift memorial to the Boston bombing victims stood.

At home, Rita’s mother knew the value of education and played word games with the kids, surrounded them with books and alw
ays had paper and pens ready for writing.  Even though the TV was often on, her mother would lay a board over a chair for each to do  homework.  Her father was harder to please.  Despite her excellent grades  (she graduated 3rd in her class), her father would look at the report card and always  say, “Room for Improvement”.

Her life changed forever when a school counselor suggested she apply to Brown University, a nearby Ivy League school.   She had never heard of Brown, and never been to Providence, despite its proximity at the end of her train line.  The school was full of far wealthier students and Rita realized quickly she needed to tone down her strong working class accent.  After getting her undergraduate and law degrees and practicing in Texas for several years, Rita returned to Boston in 1985.

Charles River, Boston

On a stroll along the Charles River,  we learned her father and five uncles served in World War II and one has a sign honoring him.   She also pointed out a reference to Thomas  “Mumbles” Menino, mayor of Boston for 20 years. Her brother has worked for the Mayor for many years and her mother used to write letters telling him exactly what he should do.  The Mayor even attended her mother’s funeral – indicative of the roots established by the Gillooly family over the years as well as the small town feel of Boston.

Swan Boats in Boston’s Public Garden

At the Public Garden, across from the Boston Common, we saw the famous swan boats ferrying tourists and families around a small lake.  Rita’s mother would bring the four kids downtown once a year to ride the boats, an experience they loved.  And nearby we walked by the headquarters of the insurance giant, Liberty Mutual, where Rita now works in the legal department.

Rita is not bitter about her father’s drinking nor does she indulge in self-pity.  She and her husband raised  two children in Canton, only two train stops  from her family’s apartment on Garfield Avenue in  Hyde Park.   Her journey to a home in the suburbs with good schools is the American dream.   I missed seeing many famous sites of Boston but the city became  more real with Rita as the guide – a place for immigrants to settle and thrive and where a self-motivated, smart child of the projects could use a good education to expand her world.

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RED EARTH FESTIVAL – AN INTRODUCTION TO THE POW-WOW CIRCUIT

Fancy Dancer at Red Earth Festival

Because of the Indian Removal Act of 1837 , Native American tribes were forcibly moved to Oklahoma, resulting in 39 of these Federally Recognized groups having Tribal Headquarters in here.   Oklahoma has the most Native Americans in the U.S., more languages than Europe, and no reservation system that is common in the West. There are sovereign nations with their own police but the population is mainstreamed into Oklahoma society.  I have long wondered where the Native Americans hung out in Oklahoma and I found many at the 27 year old Red Earth Festival, a multi-tribal pow wow.

For those of us who remember “Westerns”, the image of a pow-wow is a circle of Native American tribal leaders called to resolve a problem.  For Native Americans, its root is from the Algonquin word “pau wau” referring to a gathering of spiritual leaders or medicine men.  But today, it refers to a gathering of both Native Americans and others to dance, sing, socialize, and honor the tradition.

Laketa Pratt ‘s Buckskin Doll

Chase Earles – Caddo piece

The Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City is a surprising choice for a Pow Wow location but the advantage of indoor air conditioning is notable.   The festival is unique in its combination of a juried Art Show with dancing and drumming. Most artists traveled from New Mexico and Arizona but a healthy number of emerging Oklahoman artists participated.   Chase Earles is part of a Caddo Rivivalist movement, learning the ceramic crosshatching thin coil method and pit firing from an elder and by trial and error.  Mary Alston, a Cherokee from Woodward, Oklahoma uses traditional honeysuckle and buck rush for Cherokee basketry.  And Oklahoma City Laketa Ann Pratt, a Cheyenne Arapaho Sioux Creek, works with soft buckskin to create her dolls.

While exploring the  arts and craft section, I met three tour agents from Germany who were thrilled to be there.  As children, they all read books by Karl May, a German author who wrote a series of books about Chief Winnetou,  fictional chief of the Apache Tribe.  One agent said he would receive a new book every Christmas and birthday and he was fascinated by The Old West.   Because of these books, many Germans still come to the Southwest on their American vacation and the Oklahoma City Tourist Office promotes its destination throughout Germany.

A grand parade each morning brought several hundred dancers into the arena, led by an elderly honor guard of  veterans, the highest honor of a warrior society.  This year, members of the Seminole tribe carried a traditional staff with eagle feathers in front followed by the American and Oklahoma flags.  Singers sang in their native tongue to a deliberate drum beat.   Women’s dresses swayed easily to the simple steps.  Children followed in native regalia.  Young male dancers swirled and jumped.  All stood in a circle as the Native American Flag Song was sung honoring the American flag.

The dancing soon began, with four contests each for men and women.  All hoped to win a cash prize up to $1000 for first place.  A special family prize of a quarter horse was  donated by the R. G. Harris family – one of the emcees and a former fancy dancer –  and given to the best fancy dancer. Eric Oesch, director of the Red Earth Festival, admitted their prize money can’t compete with those offered by pow-wows sponsored by tribal run casinos but it was enough to draw a good crowd.  Most were dancing for the tradition even though their native garb easily cost hundreds of dollars.

Jingle Dance Dress

For the men, the Fancy Dance is based on a War dance and requires strength, The Traditional Dance tells a story of bravery in the hunt, Grass Dance celebrates the importance in grass in a warrior’s life, and the southern traditional Straight Dance, also known as the old man’s dance, requires a Golden Eagle tail feather.  Women can choose the Buckskin Dance, originally only open  to princesses and women in leadership roles,  Fancy Shawl as the newest,  Jingle Dance with its story of a child healed, and Cloth Dance distinguished by ribbons imitating grass blowing.  Feather fans, jingles, and stunning shawls accompany the women.  The traditions are still being past down in families with 10 to 12 years old boys and girls participating as well as one 72 year old man who had been dancing since he was six.

Past and present day life played out in the civic center as a painted warrior pushed a baby stroller,  a father used a Q-tip to paint his child’s face, and at the food court, a young Fancy Dancer was more interested in finding pizza than an Indian Taco. A man from Dallas seated next to me asked, “Is this your first pow-wow?”  He had just begun exploring his Cherokee/Choctaw heritage and enjoyed attending pow-wows on the week-end.  There are many to choose from in all 50 states.    Four other pow-wows were advertised on the Red Earth week-end, including one in Texas.  I replied, “yes, it’s my first pow-wow but it won’t be my last.”

Contact Red Earth Festival – Red Earth Festival Site

Contact Chase Earles – http://www.caddopottery.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/caddopottery

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Magical Music Tour – Classical Music in Prague and Vienna

Prague’s State Opera House

Looking back, it seems inevitable that our visits to Prague and Vienna would heavily involve classical performances.  Yet, prior to our departure,  we had only purchased tickets to the Don Quixote  ballet at the State Opera House in Prague for the evening of our arrival.  We soon took advantage of the many musical offerings in these two old Austrian-Hungarian Empire cities.

At the ballet, I  tried to dress up my very basic travel clothes with a scarf and small necklace of pearls but the black walking shoes and rain jacket gave me away.  Suits and high heels surrounded us.  Fortunately, in the dark we could enjoy the performance of Don Quixote in a gilded gold and red concert hall.  After the performance, we were introduced to clapping the European way.  Crowds don’t just politely tap a hand. Lengthy plaudits  continued for three curtain calls and flowers for the principals.  And, no one left – no rushing to the exists to beat the crowd.

Prague  has a long history of promoting the musical talent of its youth. Thanks to a musical education system within villages surrounding Prague in the 18th century, the best musicians from rural areas were hired by the nobility or taken into the Church to further pursue their education.  That emphasis continues today in even their poorest schools thanks to local foundations.

The city  has also long had a love relationship with Mozart who rejoiced in  his celebrity status here.  The first performance  of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” ended with one-half hour of applause and his “Don Giovanni” was written for and debuted in Prague. On the streets today are young men dressed as Mozart, handing out pamphlets promoting organ, trumpet and string quartet concerts throughout the day at different venues which are many.

Here’s just one day’s offerings.  In Prague, on June 5th, there were eight classical music concerts, including works of Dvorak, Mozart, Stauss and Vivaldi, two operas performing Verdi’s Rigoletto and Dvorak’s Rusalta, and one jazz concert.  Performances were in churches, opera houses, museums, Lobkowicz Palace, and the Municipal House, the city’s foremost Art Nouveau building. Granted, some of the concerts were for the benefit of tourists only but on that same day in Dallas, a city of equivalent size, only the Dallas Symphony was performing at a park. Most American cities struggle to support one opera house but Prague has two beautiful, well-used opera venues.

We happened onto an organ concert at Prague’s St. Vitus Cathedral, celebrating the first World Organ Day, originating out of Notre Dame’s 850th anniversary in Paris and being duplicated in 850 cathedrals and concert halls worldwide.  This chilly church was begun in 1344 and only finished in 1929.  It is so cold inside that the archbishop is considering installing heated bench cushions.  We shivered through a performance by four of Prague’s top young organists, enjoying the venue for which the organ was created – high stone ceilings and walls, the better to reverberate finales from the large reed pipes.

Vienna’s State Opera  House

The music tour continued with an unexpected but welcomed attendance at the Vienna State Opera for a modern day production of La Traviata. Our travel clothes still couldn’t keep pace with the glitter of the locals who make up 60% of attendees.    The crowd knew their opera singers and some were favored, including the American, Thomas Hampson.  Once again, they gave a hearty applause at the end and about half  rose for the ovation.  Many remained seated, an indication the performance was very good but not at the standing ovation level.

Our last classical music exposure surprised us all.  At the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass in the mini-cathedral of St. Augustine, the church’s own orchestra, choir, solists and organ performed Franz Schubert’s Mass in G Major.   In small towns, culture is often carried by church choirs, and we experienced from whence this tradition came.  Despite the service being in German, all were lifted up by the sung Agnus Dei, Sanctus, and powerful Alleluias.  Many remained for the organ postlude which resulted in ……… (no surprise) ……. strong clapping at the end.

It is easy to observe what music is valued in a community by the offerings. Paris often has country western concerts, bluegrass performances, and even acoustical guitar singers at That Guy’s Coffee.  The Dallas Symphony only gets as close as Greenville.  For Prague and Vienna,  centuries of classical music training and education continue to result in bountiful performances of high quality, benefitting tourists and locals alike.  The truth is “surround sound” still can’t compete with live music, particularly if it’s before an audience who knows how to show their appreciation.

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The Berlin Wall – 44 Years Later

Last Remaining Tower of the Berlin Wall


 I last crossed the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie in 1969 on a family vacation to Europe.  We flew from Hamburg to Berlin on a short 35 minutes Trans World Airlines (TWA) flight. Twenty four years after the end of WWII, West Berlin had been cleared of rubble.  The streets were clean but many blocks empty.  Cranes dominated that half of the city as new construction began to carry out instructions from international architects brought in to fill a world lost to bombing.

The Berlin Wall was eight years old and West Berlin a political hotspot, where the Cold War played out daily.  President Nixon had visited West Berlin in March of that year to huge crowds.  Miles Davis would play in November with equal numbers of fans.  Americans were loved for keeping supply lines open to the western half of the city.

I remember clearly the excitement of crossing into East Berlin.  We sat on the top level of a double decker tour bus, providing a nice view of the guards.  East German guards closely checked our passports pictures and ran mirrors under the bus.   Despite instructions not to photograph anything,  my oldest brother slipped out our movie camera, put it on his lap and filmed the gate and wall as we crossed the border.

Compared to West Berlin, its eastern counterpart was shut-down.  Rows of apartment buildings had been built but many old bombed out apartments stood silent, awaiting their turn to be torn down.  As the tallest building in Germany, the TV tower of  Berliner Fernsehturm had just been finished in 1969 but we weren’t allowed to ascend. Few people or cars were out.  Our guide followed a script as we rode through the quiet streets.  It just felt sad.

Tourists at Checkpoint Charlie

Forty four years later in 2013, one must search to find remnants of the Wall that fell in 1989.  A brick pattern inserted into streets and sidewalks marks its past presence. Checkpoint Charlie is now a tourist trap with fake American and Russian soldiers posing for pictures with young women.  Einstein’s Kaffee Checkpoint Charlie Shop sits on one corner with Ben and Jerry ice cream for sale on another.  Looking north across the “border” is an active business street filled with cars and pedestrians and the cranes are now in East Berlin.

Outer and Inner Wall
of Chapel of Reconciliation

Only three parts of the original 100 mile Wall still stand and we visited them all.  The Berlin Wall was actually two walls with a cleared space between for easier shooting of escapees.    Design of the Wall changed each time an escape was  successful,  ending with a curved top to prevent anyone from holding on.   At Bernard Strasse, the  original layout made clear the difficulty in getting out.  Even if one scaled the first barrier, a second awaited.  On a walk through the interior space between walls, we slowly viewed  names and photos of the 138 persons who died trying to flee. The only remaining guard tower that would have been feared in 1969 now seemed lonely and harmless.   Most moving was the new Chapel of Reconciliation, built of earth in the round, with an outer and inner wall symbolizing the actual Berlin Wall.

 East Side Gallery
East German Trabant Crashing though Wall
East Side Gallery

At the East Side Gallery, graffiti artists were commissioned to paint murals at a second Wall location.  This portion follows the Spree River which can be seen through chiseled out holes in the wall.  The crowd was younger and very international.   Paintings tugged at our hearts.  One showed  the leg and shoe of a young man trying to escape over the wall.  In another, an East German Trabant car crashes through the barrier.  Several had peace and love themes and many artists signed their names and websites.  Just before we arrived, protesters tried to stop a developer from tearing down a portion of this wall but heavy equipment was brought in at night to do the deed.

Berlin Wall near Topography of Terror

At the final location, a small section of the Wall borders the Topography of Terror display and museum where the story of the Nazi’s use of intimidation and ruthlessness to come and stay in power is detailed.  Anyone who spoke up was interned or killed and all were humiliated. Painful photos of the descent into hell are abundant.  By placing this museum next to the Berlin Wall, the two tragedies intertwine, revealing years of repression for East Berlin and Germany.

Walls never work or at least they don’t work for long.  From the Great Wall to the Security Wall in Israel to the talk of a border wall with Mexico, the idea always seems simple.  But it is really a break down in imagination.  A government can’t find a better solution than a concrete wall, which only gives resolve to those being penned in or kept out.  They do eventually fall.  Berlin had the foresight to preserve portions of this inconvenient and unintentional monument, reminding us all the human spirit will eventually prevail. 

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