The New Waltz King

Johann Strauss, The original Waltz King

 

Andre Rieu stands tall. He is good looking.  He reminds me of the original Waltz King. With great panache, he leads The Johann Strauss Orchestra.

He faces the audience as he conducts his orchestra, violin tucked under his chin. Rieu was born in Maastricht, Netherlands in 1949. His father was the conductor of the Maastricht Symphony Orchestra. He began playing the violin at age five. Rieu has assembled a private orchestra of about one hundred performers who play light classical and popular music as well as folk tunes and anything else that can lend itself to singing or dancing…but especially waltzing.

Mr. Rieu once explained to an interviewer that classical music did not have to be solemn and ceremonial with people only looking at the conductor’s back while unable to move from their seats.  So, he encourages everyone to participate, sing along, clap, sway and jump up to dance in the aisles, in the front and just about anywhere where space can be found. He is renowned for his version of the “Blue Danube Waltz” and as soon as they hear the opening strains, people start to sway and applaud. He begins slowly, languorously, teasing the audience by stopping altogether then picking up the tempo and giving it his all.

The orchestra members are good-looking, superbly dressed and seem to greatly enjoy themselves. This has a contagious effect. Even the audience looks like it has been hand-picked for attractive people.

(Here’s the orchestra playing some waltzes you have not heard a million times)

The Johann Strauss Orchestra tours extensively; they have their own bus and a caravan of vehicles to transport their equipment.  They mostly perform out-of-doors. Everywhere they go they prepare by building elaborate sets, replicating village squares, churches, castles, and plazas.

They have no sponsors and rely on ticket sales to finance all their undertakings.  In his New York City appearance, Rieu teamed up with a local Gospel Group and they sang lustily together. The Orchestra also performs a lavish New Year’s Day concert in Vienna.

Andre Rieu loves what he does and exudes joie de vivre and exuberance (traits not usually associated with the Dutch). In his private life he is just as flamboyant as on stage. He owns a 15th Century castle, plays a 1667 Stradivarius, and drives a red Tesla.

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Here is Rieu’s famous version of the Blue Danube. It has been viewed over 31 milllion times.

 

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Women, Power, Sex

 

It caught me by surprise. One night the program was listed as Charlie Rose. The next night it became “To be Announced.”

When I learned that three CBS employees  had accused Charlie Rose of sexual harassment, I was stunned. One of my favorite programs had disappeared: A plain round table, one or two intelligent guests, one attentive interviewer, all discussing what was going on in the world. It was as if the Rock of Gibraltar had sunk below the ocean. How Charlie Rose responded to the accusation was equally shocking. He was “embarrassed,” not contrite. As though you had caught him with his makeup not yet on and not camera-ready.

The present wave of indignation started when the film producer Harvey Weinstein  was discovered to have systematically  abused his position of power by forcing

Vulnerable actresses to cater to his sexual fantasies.  Weinstein fell abruptly and conclusively. It took one courageous woman to create a landslide and the movement #MeToo was aloft.

Embarrassment, shame and the fear of losing their employment or social position had hitherto kept women enslaved to the whims of the first sex. Now allegations of misconduct in the business and entertainment worlds are emerging every day.

Lin Farley had coined the phrase “sexual harassment” in 1975 to refer to this workplace dependency. Some legislation followed, but culture changes much more slowly than the law. Before all this brouhaha, we had already witnessed the fall of that idol of popular culture Bill Cosby. His television image of the very model of the paterfamilias and dispenser of armchair wisdom​, creator of Fat

​Albert  and other funny characters collapsed abruptly and morphed into the bloated monster of depravity who forced women into submission and raped them.  Both Weinstein and Cosby insisted that the sex was consensual.

And who remembers Dominique Strauss Kahn, former head of the International Monetary fund? In 2011 he was accused by a New York hotel maid of sexually assaulting her. He settled the civil action case which ensued by paying her 6 million dollars. In the process he lost his position and his wife but is apparently pursuing his merry and predatory way of life as if nothing was amiss,

And now let us turn to the man presently occupying the Oval Office. He it was who boasted on television of groping staffers, fondling women and other gross behavior. He is also the man who repeatedly assaulted Hilary Clinton by chanting “Lock her up!” when he is the one who
should be sitting in a dark dungeon.  Who will rid us of this hideous creature?

It is a good development that women now feel freer to reveal the indignities they have had to endure, it is also good that some men will think twice before engaging in this reprehensible conduct. But nothing permanent will be achieved until a critical mass of women achieves positions of power and more women reach out to their sisters and help them to places of dignity and security.

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Why Do We Still Pray?

 

 

On October 19, 1991, a massive firestorm swept through the Oakland hills where we lived. Twenty-five people were killed and 2843 homes were destroyed.  Due in part to a good Samaritan, the fire stopped just before our home.

 

When I learned the next day that our house had not burned, I remember standing on the sidewalk, going nowhere in particular and repeating over and over: Thank You! Thank you! Then I stopped and asked myself: Whom are you thanking, you numbskull? You don’t believe in God!

 

When waiting for the result of a test, something in me prays: please let it not be cancer. When the plane I am in shudders and shakes I pray: please don’t crash!

 

Is the need to pray an inherent part of us? Is it built into our genes? Is it an atavistic vestige of the past no longer needed like an appendix but still working? We have made great scientific advances. We know the answers to many previously obscure questions and we are answering important new questions more and more quickly. We are no longer groping in the dark. We know that there is no God who cares about us individually and can alter things for us and yet we still pray for this favor.

 

The ultimate curmudgeon Ambrose Bierce wrote, “To pray is to ask the laws of the Universe to be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner.”

When I lived in Beirut   the word “Inchallah” often cropped up in conversations: The doctor would say:

“Tomorrow, Inchallah, you will feel much better.”  I translated it as “hopefully”, but it literally means “God willing”

When the late Christopher Hitchens was dying of cancer he asked: “Don’t trouble a Deaf Heaven with prayers for me.” And on September 3, when the President declared

a National Day of Prayer for the victims of Hurricane Harvey, Richard Dawkins tweeted” Yes, God will now feel free to come to the rescue. Er…why did he send the hurricane in the first place?”

Is it possible that we cannot live by reason alone?

 



How Things Get Their Names

 

Buenos Aires

Long before it was discovered that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes breeding in stagnant waters, people believed that the disease was caused by bad air, hence it was named mal aria (bad air.)

A myth about good air is at the origin of the name of the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina. It was said that the origin of its name was the good air it enjoyed atop a hill.

Another legend has it that the city was named after a Sicilian saint: Nuestra Senora la Virgen Maria de los Buenos Aires who is credited with having helped conquer the place.

Amerigo Vespucci

 

And that is how names stick long after their origin has been forgotten. Venezuela’s name also boasts of a legend. The area around Lake Maracaibo supposedly reminded the navigator Amerigo Vespucci of the City of Venice, so he named it Piccola Venezia (Little Venice) or Venezuela.

 

Amerigo Vespucci was also the man who, in 1501 proclaimed that Columbus had not found Asia’s eastern side but a totally different continent, in fact two continents. He had deduced this from noticing the different constellations and observing indigenous customs and habits. In 1507 it was suggested that the continents be named North and South America in his honor. We are lucky that his first name was used in this naming or we would be known today as the United States of Vespucci.

 



Familiar Scenes From Detective Shows

A woman is walking slowly, carrying a loaded tray. Maybe she is humming a tune or starts to say something to someone. Next scene: The tray has crashed to the ground scattering broken china and food all around. The woman is screaming: “Help! (or Au secours or Aiuto”) depending on which language the drama is in and yes, you knew it: there is a ghastly dead body on the ground (or in the bed, or in an armchair.)

In a male version, a man is walking his dog through a wooded area.  The dog runs off and refuses commands to return.  We know he has found a body.

Here is another familiar scenario: An obviously vulnerable young person gets a phone call: “Sandy (or Amy or Candy,) this is Dana, help me please. I am scared; I am at the deserted X Warehouse. Without a word to anyone the distraught Sandy (or Amy or Candy) jumps in her car, tires screeching, rushing headlong into what we all know is a trap. And yes, we next see her at the warehouse walking hesitantly and calling “Dana where are you?”  Suddenly someone comes from behind and silently encircles her throat. In one variant, a friend has overheard the telephone call and appears just in time to rescue  our heroine. If not, she becomes the second victim. In crime dramas nowadays, multiple victims are in.

Are you ready for this one? A person opens the front door in response to a knock, thinking it is her neighbor or the mail carrier and is confronted by an apparition from the past: He or she is staring fixedly or glaring or grinning widely (you pick) and saying: “So here you are. Long time no see!” We all know an aggrieved person from long ago has arrived to torment and seek revenge.

And now for a Hitchcockian twist.

A young maiden is fleeing a pursuer, running blindly with someone at her heels.  She runs, stumbles, recovers her balance, reaches her front door, gropes for her key, finally inserts it in the lock with great relief, and enters the house only to find her pursuer waiting for her inside.  In some scenarios she then wakes up from a dream.  Other times she is not so lucky.

In a lighter vein, this one is probably from a comedy or a more lighthearted mystery drama.  We have two attractive young people, studiously avoiding each other, or constantly bickering, and making a great show of going out with other people. That is a sure sign that sooner or later they will fall into each others’ arms.

A regular watcher of such shows will often get this sense of deja-vu.  Still, it in no way detracts from the pleasure of watching. On the contrary, you get to enjoy recognizing these situations and detecting these ploys.  You watch to see what variations on familiar themes the author will bring to you.

 

 

 

 



The Destruction of Statues and History

Saddam Hussein Statue

History is written by the victors. We need to learn what the vanquished might have done, had they prevailed.

We still remember the statue of Saddam Hussein as it teetered, tipped and crashed to the ground amidst great jubilation. This was in 2003 and was supposed to celebrate Iraq’s liberation by American forces. It did not quite turn out that way…but the statue is gone.

In Ukraine, after President Yanukovich was defeated in 2015 and fled to Russia, the Ukrainians got busy removing 1,329 statues of Lenin, arm extended toward a glorious proletarian future. They wanted to be rid of all Soviet symbols. Even so, many such statues are still alive and well in Eastern Ukraine.

Lenin Statue

 

Another controversy erupted over the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky in Lubyanka Square in Moscow. Dzherzhinsky was the founder of the KGB.  The monument was removed and restored several times, and a replica of the statue now resides in the city of Minsk in Belarus.

 

Dzherzhinsky Deconstructed

After the fall of the Soviet Union, a big housecleaning of communist life and art occurred. Fortunately for historians, the Moscow Metro underground system escaped this purge and remains intact. The stations are lavishly decorated with murals of historical events statues, bas reliefs and Communist-era paintings. It is a huge underground museum.

There was no such housecleaning in China. There the ubiquitous statues of Mao are still standing in their original places.

In Budapest, Hungary the government built a shrine called Memento Park in which reside 40 statues from the time when the country was a Soviet satellite. Similarly, when Lithuania was liberated from the Soviet Bloc and regained its independence in 1991, it opened Gruntas Park to house hundreds of sculptures of Soviet leaders. The Park was made to resemble a Russian Prison with guard towers to represent oppression.

In France, Marechal Petain was the great hero of Verdun during World War I. And then in a stunning about face he became the leader of the Vichy-Occupied French Government after the fall of France during World War II. The hero turned into a traitor. After liberation of France from the Nazis, all the streets named for him acquired new names. Petain was lucky to avoid being shot like his prime minister, Pierre Laval.

And so to the United States, where we now have our own controversy over Confederate leaders’ statues.In Charlottesville, Virginia, violence erupted over plans to topple monuments to Confederate generals. In Austin, Texas, Robert E Lee’s statue was taken down. Similar battles are occurring in Gainesville, Florida and in Birmingham, Alabama where the mayor hid a confederate monument. And Tennessee is preparing to topple a monument to Nathan Bedford, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan.

 

Hidden In Alabama

Should we remove statues of hateful leaders and those that remind us of offensive events? Perhaps we should, but following the example of other countries, we could create spaces, museums, gardens where these pieces of our history could be gathered, housed and displayed along with information about their times and activities so they could be seen in their proper context. School children could visit to expand their understanding of our common history.

 

From the Editor: My esteemed author will appreciate and be inspired by any comments you would like to make. Please see the space for this below.

 



How Easily the Oppressed Become Oppressors

Aung San Suu Kyi visits the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo on June 16 2012. Aung San Suu Kyi herself spoke at the event and 12 000 people came to celebrate her in the City Hall Square in Oslo.

 

How easily the oppressed become oppressors. Their suffering has not helped them to feel empathy and compassion for others people’s suffering.
In Myanmar Aug San Sui Kyi spent many years under home arrest because of her activities as an advocate for democracy. For this she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Her National League for Democracy party was freely elected in 2015, defeating the entrenched military junta and she then became State Counselor. The country’s constitution did not allow her to become President because she was married to a British citizen. Still this was hailed as a victory for democracy. Much was expected of her.

As it happens the real power remains in the hands of the military and no substantial changes have occurred. Was she their puppet? Did she knowingly make a deal for the sake of gaining the semblance of power?

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority of about one million who have lived in the country since the 12th century. In spite of that they are not considered one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups and have been denied citizenship since 1982. They live in one of the poorest states in the country and are subjected to constant persecution and violence. Under British Rule they were considered Indians and now they are basically stateless. This means that their rights to vote, marry and  practice their religion, and their access to basic services are severely restricted. Their homes are being
burned and they are being massacred en masse even as they are fleeing the country. Hundreds of thousands of them are trying to reach Bangladesh and other neighboring countries. En route they are subjected to rape and torture by the Myanmar security forces.

Why is Aug San Sui Kyi not denouncing these atrocities? Why is she talking of Muslim jihadism and calling these people terrorists? In a stance resembling that of our current president’s she is claiming that there is violence on both sides.

Critics have called for the revocation of her Nobel Peace Prize. The Dalai Lama and Malala Yousefazai have judged her severely and Archbishop Desmond Tutu has accused her of legitimizing genocide.

Were we too hasty in embracing her ? too eager for good news? ….but how could we have known?



A Multi-Layered American Part IV – The American Experience

Golden Gate Bridge with San Francisco beyond

I came close to never being an American.  When my husband, David, and I arrived in France at the end of World War II, it was with the firm intention of settling there.

But post-war France was totally devastated: the economy was in ruins, food rationing was in effect, housing was simply impossible to get unless one paid a hefty bribe. It was very cold inside and out.

We might have struggled through it all were it not for our intense dislike of Communism which was then spreading like a wild fire. The Communists had been the backbone of the internal Resistance Movement in France and nothing was going to stop them from claiming the rewards of their struggle.  My father, whose dream had always been to come to America persuaded us to apply for visas as did he.

We did not know at that time that The United States (which had already saved Europe during two World Wars) was about to intervene once more. The Marshall Plan would halt the forward movement of Communism which we observed when we first arrived in France.

Our visa application was accepted. We were going to San Francisco.

And so it was that in August 1948 we landed at San Francisco Airport on a freezing and foggy night while carrying a very tired 13-month-old child. We were greeted by friends of my parents who lived there. I must admit to an instant dislike for the city with its grey and hostile ocean, its ridiculously perpendicular streets, and undulating alien landscape. And in our first rooming house, they served dinner at the uncivilized hour of 5 PM!

But gradually, we came to enjoy our new city.  On our very first Sunday, friends took us to Sigmund Stern Grove for a picnic and free concert in a majestic outdoor setting.  Across the Bay in Oakland, Lake Merritt became a frequent destination where we watched birds and people enjoying their free time. Our daughter Dina happily waddled around, fed the ducks and delighted in the egrets and herons.

 

Both Sigmund Stern Grove and Lake Meritt introduced me to the uniquely American concept of the private philanthropist who, having amassed a fortune, uses it to contribute to the happiness of his fellow citizens.

As we settled in, we learned how to minimize living expenses by renting very cheap rooms in other people’s apartments (this was quite a few years before Airbnb.) Once we lived almost rent-free when we were asked to keep an eye on an eccentric older woman whom her son didn’t want to leave alone. Later, we had a basement room with a view of the sidewalk and the feet of passers-by.

We enjoyed the American experience of openness and accessibility. We loved the public libraries (thanks to another Philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie) and it was remarkable that one could just stroll through a University Campus. (It didn’t work that way at the Sorbonne in Paris)

Eating out was very cheap and places were open flexible hours unlike in France where restaurants had rigid eating times. We found out that in stores they expected you to serve yourself and bring your purchases to a counter to pay for them. That was a very alien concept to us, but really quite practical.

Dina enjoyed the many playgrounds where she met other children. It is funny to remember that it made no difference that she didn’t know a word of English.

And so, we gradually learned to operate pragmatically rather than to follow generations-old ways as we slowly inserted ourselves into a very different world.

My husband David made his way in the working world. In those days, unions were strong and he was able to get a well-paid job that allowed him to support the family which was soon one daughter richer;  Helen, was born in 1952.

(more about my career in a later blog)

I have now lived in the United States longer than anywhere else. Becoming American was very gradual and almost imperceptible. We simply took it for granted. Our family became part of the “salad bowl” of America, each person retaining their distinctive flavor and yet mixing in and contributing to the taste of the whole.

So there is the final of my various layers…French, Jewish, Russian, American. Me.



A Multi-Layered American Part III — French Connection

It is now time to switch to the French connection. While I was born into the Jewish and Russian parts of my identity, the French part only occurred due to my family’s 12-year residence in Beirut during my childhood, which I wrote about previously. It was there that I got a French education in an academically oriented French Lycee.

I not only learned to speak and write French but also absorbed the French world view which is rational, secular and totally oriented to critical thinking. I was very influenced by the 18th century great philosophers, and the Enlightenment remains my favorite period of history. Some other Frenchmen I have loved: Moliere for his beautifully written and shrewdly observed comedies, Voltaire for defying the Established Church, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Gustave Flaubert, in spite of their being classics which had to be admired.

Later I loved Sartre and Camus for their ideas, and finally I must mention Henry Troyat, a very prolific novelist who like my family left Russia as a boy and wrote about both Russian and French life and their interconnections. I read him for pleasure.

The French connection got a big boost when I married a Frenchman in 1943. David Klugman had the same Russian Jewish background as myself and we were introduced by mutual friends in Tel Aviv. David had lived in Grenoble with his widowed mother from age 13. In 1940 when France was under German occupation, he and a companion secretly crossed the Pyrenees and escaped across the border to Spain and from there to Portugal. There he joined De Gaulle’s Free French Forces and fought in North Africa’s Western Desert along Montgomery’s British troops. We met during one of his leaves, started corresponding, and eventually married.

At the end of the war David was demobilized in France and I joined him there. We lived in France for 3 years during which my daughter Dina was born. Throughout our whole marriage French was spoken at home. As a result both our daughters Dina and Helen (born in Oakland) are totally fluent in French.

 

 

And so one might say that Jewishness has been a constant but unobtrusive presence in my life, Russia has fulfilled my emotional needs, and France lodged itself in my brain’s frontal cortex which deals with problem solving and intellectual life. I think they all live together in harmony.

Next time I will tell about our move to the United States and how we fared in yet another new country.



A Multi-Layered American Part II –Russia

The Kremlin

 

In 1921, my parents and an as-yet-unborn me were forced out of Russia by the Bolshevik Revolution. My mother never lost her emotional ties to the country of her birth and the Russian component of my character has been a constant rhythm in my life ever since.

My mother always maintained the cord which attached her to Russia. Throughout the Russian Civil War, the Bolshevik days, World War II, and the Cold War era, she maintained an active correspondence with her mother, my grandmother Elena. Elena survived the Siege of Leningrad, in which a third of that city’s population starved to death. She received a hero’s medal for the things she did during that period.

As I was growing up, wherever we lived, Russian was spoken at home and among our acquaintances. Later, in college, in the U.S., I majored in Slavic Languages and Literature because I knew that I too would continue this communication and return to the land which I had never known but longed to know.

After my grandmother Elena died, my mother’s correspondence shifted seamlessly to her brother, my uncle Volodya. Then my own mother died and, just as naturally, I took over and kept the contact with Volodya, who also lived in Leningrad. On his demise I sought out his daughter, Natasha, and wrote to her and so the torch was passed once more and the contact was maintained.

It is amazing to me how continuous and meaningful this contact between our families has remained and how it was never interrupted in spite of all the upheavals in all of our lives, especially in the Soviet Union, where wars, purges, arrests, and famines disrupted so many lives.

In 1989, during Gorbachev’s Glasnost period, my husband David and I decided to take a trip to Russia and meet my family. It was the first of many such visits. Natasha was married to Semyon and they had a son, Ilya. I was very nervous about seeing them. What if they were ardent Communists who despised Americans? I need not have worried. They were warm and friendly people who somehow had managed to remain “human” in a robotic Soviet Union.

Semyon had a car in which he took us to see the sights, and then we walked around Leningrad which at that time was a dead city. We could not even find a place to sit down and have coffee. I asked Semyon how it was that we had not seen a single statue of Lenin, arm raised and pointing to a glorious proletarian future. He smiled with a twinkle in his eye and replied: “Because I have avoided taking you to those places.” On many other visits we got better acquainted and both my daughters met and loved their Russian relatives.

 

St. Basils