As daffodils blossom and birds once again sing in the trees, spring has sprung in many parts of North America. Many folks have weathered a long snowy winter and crave warmth, sunshine on their bare arms and all the outdoor activities that forced hibernation kept from them over the last few months.
I, for one, can never get enough of winter fun. Living in San Francisco, a trip to the mountains is easy but requires some planning and often ice skating indoors has to satisfy my cravings.
In Ottawa, Ontario, workers and students can ice-skate commute (skammute?) on the Rideau Canal Skateway. The 4.8-mile-long, 26-foot-wide frozen canal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors can rent skates, and warm up spots, cafes and other amenities dot the route. It is of course a popular tourist attraction and the centerpiece of Winterlude, a three-week-long winter festival including ice sculptures, skate clinics and Snowflake Kingdom, a snowy playground wonderland. Continue reading »
Marseille is France’s biggest port, second largest city and the European Capital of Culture for 2013. This distinction is up there with being named Olympic host, and the rough and ready city on the Mediterranean is taking it seriously. The town known for shipping, crime, immigrant unrest and poverty is taking the opportunity to re-brand itself as an appealing seaside tourist spot.
Marseille is building on it’s southern ties to North Africa and is remaking the harbor area into a car-free and pedestrian-friendly promenade. In classic French fashion, the city has designated ten new cultural sites, many located in renovated structures. A museum was once France’s Ellis Island, where immigrants were processed, and an abandoned tobacco factory is being refashioned as a Contemporary Arts Museum focusing on the Immigration theme. New buildings are popping up too, with public finance we Americans can only dream about. The desire to change the crime-ridden image to cultural hotspot is a tricky balancing act, paying homage to the immigrant culture without whitewashing the colonial past.
Tonight, my seven-year-old made origami cranes for the children of Japan. Tomorrow, at school is a bagel breakfast to raise money for those in need, following the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.
It is also cherry blossom season, here in San Francisco, in our nation’s capital and of course in Japan, a rite of spring and a life-affirming, annual natural event. As I wheeze through the days full of blooms and pollen I stop to think about the brutality and generosity of what we call Mother Nature.
Traditional custom this time of year in Japan is to picnic under the cherry blossoms with friends and family. Sake, poetry and karaoke often accompany a spread of bountiful treats. This year though, as the country mourns, many are avoiding conspicuous consumption and opting to forgo the annual ritual, or to tone it down considerably. The elderly mayor of Tokyo has erected signs to ask residents to avoid the spring fun as a show of solidarity for those suffering in the northeast of the country. Mother Nature, or the force in nature, whatever you want to call it, can be so cruel and so glorious. The cherry blossoms are beautiful, fleeting, and fragile…like life itself. There is poignancy this year, but certainly the pink blossoms offer a small glimmer of hope, that life goes on.
Every year around this time we hear railing against the commercialization of Christmas, and the exhortations to shop and buy and give do get tiring, but they’re nothing new. In fact, they’ve been around a long time, since the Middle Ages, as the many Christmas markets across Europe attest.
The oldest, in the French city of Strasbourg in Alsace on the German border, has been active since 1570. Georgia Hesse, in the San Francisco Chronicle, ably describes the appeal of such markets and the particular draw of Strasbourg, where visitors stroll the lanes where Goethe, Gutenberg, and Albert Schweitzer once wandered.
Many markets last through New Year’s Day and some even run through the Epiphany on January 6, but others close up shop on Christmas Eve, so hurry, time’s running out.
One night some years ago I arrived in Guanajuato, Mexico for the first time, knowing little about the place beyond its being yet another Spanish colonial city. When the bus couldn’t get anywhere near my hotel on Jardin de la Union because the streets were jammed with revelers, I got out, shouldered my bags, and plunged into the crowd.
Maybe it was the long bus ride that had warped my ability to make sense of my surroundings, or it could have been my diet of magic realism literature I was on at the time, but the scene I wound through that night presented the kind of phantasmagoria that can induce hallucinations. Was everyone in costume? Was it a warmup for Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead? Colors flashed by, shouts and laughter and the melodious rhythms of Spanish ricocheted off balconied buildings. Smoke from street stalls carried the scent of grilled meat. And I continued to push my way, gently because this was a happy throng, across the plaza to the hotel. Continue reading »
It’s almost sundown on the eve of the holiest day in the Jewish calendar; Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. I was thinking about years past and how I’ve spent the day. In NYC, schools are often closed. Mine was never closed because it was an International school and if they took off one holiday they would have to take off everything: the Swedish King’s birthday, Diwali, Chinese New Year. I am not religious and my husband likes to say I am Jew–ISH, which suits me fine but I do feel connected to the heritage on my dad’s side.
I have never been to Israel, but would love to go some day. The Israeli city of Tel Aviv would be my first stop. Tel Aviv sounds like such a vibrant city and since, so often there is bad news coming out of the Middle East, I thought it was a good time to bring up the 100th birthday of this bustling metropolis. This pulsing city of more than 1.5 million is the most liberal in Israel, full of artists, gay bars, high-tech companies and Bauhaus architecture. Tel Aviv is called the Barcelona of the Middle East, a hip city, with trendy restaurants and night life which, despite the ongoing political conflict that is never far away, has a lot to offer visitors. Upcoming anniversary events include:
* International Art Biennale (ARTLV) (9 September – 9 October), showcasing contemporary works in dozens of exhibitions.
* The Green Festival (17 October), dedicating of the Green Route along the Yarkon River and a centennial bike ride.
* Fashion Week in Tel Aviv Port (19-22 October).
It was a coronation, not an election today in the small Himalayan country of Bhutan. 28-year old Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, a Western-educated son of the former king, was crowned. The optimal day was picked based on astrology, and the entire country of 700,000 joined in the festivities.
Bhutan, a country the size of Maryland, is rugged, breathtaking and its culture has remained intact because of an insular and protective approach to governing. Travel to Bhutan is not easy or cheap. Foreigners are restricted; only 20,000 tourists are allowed in each year. Continue reading »
I took a ten-minute tram ride from Cihangir to Sultanahmet as dusk settled over the city on a day that had gone from cloudy to patchy to clear. By chance I had made my journey to Istanbul during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and heard the evening feast in Sultanahmet was quite a celebration. When I arrived at the open space known as the Hippodrome between the two grand monuments of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, I found more than a celebration; I found a carnival. Continue reading »