Friday, June 12, 2015

Listening to stories and legends in Prague

We have been visiting Prague with our Road Scholars group for several days. These trips feature excellent local experts who tell the group an overview of the history and culture of the area. Since Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are neighbours, I expected similarities. They each trace their histories to the introduction of Christianity to their country along with the feudal system of land ownership and governance about 1000 years ago. In this system both the church and the royal rulers own all the land. In 1918, the land that had been ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Church were broken into countries with their own individual languages/cultural grouping. Hungary lost a lot of land and looked at the pre-1914 period as their golden days. The Poles and Czechs had their own counties again until WW2. Hungary allied itself with the Nazis. In 1938, Neville (peace in our time) Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler, Poland was invaded in 1939 and WW2 began. We heard about being under Nazi occupation from 3 points of view.  Hungary was an ally of Hiltler and their buildings came through the war relatively unscathed if I don't count the all the people sent to death factories.  Czechoslovakia was annexed by Nazis. Poland was heavily bombed.  After the war the Soviets set up a Communist system wherein the state owns everything under a repressive regime. Since the early 1990s, each county is free to be a democracy, have a free market economy and is part of EU.

Due to the influence of the ruling Austro-Hungarian empire, that ruled all 3 countries, the bigger and more decorated the building, the better. Where are the stories of kindness in all this?  Over and over, in dangerous and miserable conditions, some brave people risked ther lives for their neighbours. I have heard stories of pluck and good luck. The buildings are pretty, but many of the people are beautiful and brave.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Beautiful Budapest

On this city tour of central Euope, we are visiting cities whose governments sided with the Allies during WWII (Warsaw and Cracow) and those who sided with the Axis (Budapest).  Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire prior to WWI and lost control of these lands to Romania, Poland, Slovakia and others after that war.  They never got over their loss to this day. The beautiful buildings date back to their prosperous days in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their system of government was feudalism and the aristocracy was doing well off the work of the peasants in the countryside.

Now, in 2015, the majority live in cities, with public buildings that are very impressive, huge and elaborately decorated. Their current government is very slow at developing a modern economy. You contrast the tired, poorly dressed people who trudge past these beauties on their way to work and home. What would happen if they invested in people and let go of  maintaining the gorgeous buildings?  Focusing on beauty without the kindness of supporting growth in ordinary people can harm any society.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Witnessing Auschwich on a sunny June day

Along with 6000 other people in guided groups, we visited Auschwich Birkenhau concentration camp today. We lined up for our appointment along side groups of people speaking many languages, Polish, German, Italian, French, Mandarin, and English.  The ages ranged from early teens to seniors. Each group was assigned a guide who spoke their language. The guide told us how the camp worked and described the daily life and death of the prisoners. As we filed through the barracks, toilets (10 seconds only twice daily) the work areas, the gas chambers and crematoria, the guide told us how the Nazis managed the prisoners with humiliation and cruelty. This camp held Polish political prisoners, Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Roma, gays and the mentally ill but the vast majority were Jews like me.

The area of these facilities was vast. The Nazis got rid of the majority of Poles on the surrounding farms and took over the housing the the towns for themselves according to the guide.

When we returned to Cracow, the evening program was dinner in a Jewish style restaurant accompanied by Jewish style Klezmer music in an area where Jews lived for 900 years before the Holocaust. There are only few Jews now in Cracow.  The restaurant was in a former synagogue and ritual bath. The furniture in the hall were family dining room sets, probably taken from the apartments of the former Jewish inhabitants complete with lace tablecloths. I could not stay and walked back to the hotel in the warm June night.

I lost my way and went into a restaurant. The waitress looked at my map, told us that we still had a long way to go and called us a cab. When it arrived, she came out to make sure the cabbie understood us,  I appreciated her kindness so much then.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Hard Day at a Museum

We arrived at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews at the same as three bus loads of local high school students. This Museum, very recently constructed, covers a thousand years of history from when Jews first arrived as itinerant traders in the 11th century to the present day.  The students were all taller than I am, so getting close to some displays and reading the text information in English translation was challenging. So when I could not get close, I watched the reactions of the students instead. Some kids stood around chatting with each other. Others read the display information with interest and sometimes, would call out to their friends to take a look.   The Poles were often governed by stronger empires around them like the Prussians, the Russians and the Ottomans but they had their own monarchy for a while too. Between the first and second wars, they were an independent republic.   Within this range of historical changes, lived my own ancestors in small Jewish villages. We were not allowed to live among Christians until the late 19th century. My mother's parents emigrated to Canada around WWI. So many changes both political and cultural were taking place in the world.

In 1939, there were three million Jewish people living in Poland, most of whom did not survive the Nazi invaders and their death camps. When the Museum deals with this period, the rooms become smaller, with walls that close in on you.

Some kind and brave Poles agreed to hide Jewish infants and toddlers for their parents until better times. In a display entitled Jewish Mother, Polish Mother we saw photos of these children as seniors today and photos of them as toddlers. There were also photos of their Polish adoptive parents and if available photos of their Jewish birth parents. Their stories were both heartbreaking and inspiring.

We walked back to our Warsaw hotel in the warm spring afternoon sun.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Tourist in Warsaw welcomed by local people

When I travel, I am so grateful for a chance to meet with people who are local to the city. Last night, we had dinner with a local writer and her colleague, a former diplomat who heads an NGO. We talked about current events and about 1000 years of Polish history when the Jewish community first arrived in Poland.  Both women spoke English.

I have come here to explore this history. My mother's parents emigrated from Poland to Canada around the time of the First World War.  Very few of our Polish relatives survived the Holocaust. I am not looking for the villages of my family. No relatives are there. But I do want to see and learn about this place as a home for more than 3 million Jews before 1939.  What can I learn in a few weeks, just a beginning.

We came here from Israel where they are experiencing another heat wave. It is cool spring weather here. Warsaw is a beautiful city with wide avenues, divided by boulevards planted with trees. The streets are flat, easy to walk on, and there are many stores and cafes in this area along Pope John Paul II Ave where our hotel is located. I had to buy some warmer clothes for this part of the trip. We went to the Technical Museum and then went shopping. The woman who assisted me in the store spoke English. She showed me a variety of blue jeans. I asked her what she would recommend for her mum and she showed me great slacks and long sleeved shirts. When I was getting dressed to leave, she brought me two chocolate candies so I should have a sweet beginning to our trip. Now that is a warm welcome!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Coming back down to earth

We had to return to the coastal plain to catch a plane to Warsaw tomorrow morning. Before we drove down the winding mountain road, we went looking for a certain weaver to buy a prayer shawl for my husband. We walked up the road to the artisan shops in very old stone buildings, I kept seeking the familiar courtyard from my last visit. No luck. Finally we entered a little store to ask about the weaver and there he was!  He. moved 2 years ago.  We were so fortunate to find him.  I sat under a fig tree in the garden waiting for my husband to choose that exact blue shade he wanted and felt so at peace.

The trip back was through an active construction zone for 50 km.  In Canada, we start building roads with giant earthmovers. In these rocky hills, they use giant drills to break up the rocks which become the first layer of the road bed and huge dump trucks cart away the rest. It was a single lane of traffic moving slowly down the two lane highway for kilometres. Every so often, the dump trucks would pull over to allow the traffic snaking behind, to pass.

Since we were moving sl slowly, I kept thinking about the weekend of study, prayer, talking with people on a different journey through life than my own and wondered about how I might think of my choices in the future.

Taking a slow journey is a kindness to yourself.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Packing light

My sister and my friends offered the same good advice for this trip: "pack light".  So here I am in Jerusalem with one pair of shoes, my comfortable sandals. As I put them on today, I noticed loose stitches. We went looking for a shoemaker who could repair them while I wait. While I sat there, I watched his many customers come and go. What a patient guy!  One woman insisted he could fix her torn canvas loafers even though he told her that he only works in leather. Another woman wanted to discuss some community issue which involved his buying a ticket at once. An old man asked him to put another hole in his belt because he is thinner. The shoemaker joked with him, advised the man to eat with gusto so he would not need more holes. He turned to me suggesting I fix the Velcro straps too.  He did the repairs by hand without a machine so he could have better control. And all the while, others demanded his attention while he patiently fixed my shoes.

It's only 23' today and a pleasure to walk around in my good as new shoes. We caught a bus to The Israel Museum again so we could catch some of the exhibits we missed yesterday.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Lessons from children at The Israel Museum

We were on a guided tour today of the Jewish Culture and Dress From Around the World display.  The woman guiding us was talking about a costumed Yemeni child bride when a boisterous group of 4 year olds, in self made costumes ran into the gallery. Today's photo captures their costumes and the big explanation labels around their necks. The lively children could explain themselves. The dressed up dummie of a child bride could not. I wants to whisper to the child bride on display that I could sneak her away so she could still play and grow from a little girl to an adult like the children in the Gallery

We went on into a very provocative display, inspired by Professor Yuval Harari's book A Brief History of Mankind. The display uses objects from The Israel Museum collections to illustrate the different stages of Homo Sapiens evolution. Because it is an overview, the 4 stages were named Hunter/gatherer, Agricultural, Industrial, and Digital. Each stage offered cogent explanations for human development at that time illustrated by found objects like flints and by work of contemporary artists reflecting on that time. One of the objects was the hyoid bone of a Neandrathal who coexisted in this area at the same time as Homo sapiens. The accompanying explanation indicated that the this neck bone is exactly the same as ours, suggesting that Neandrathals could speak just like us. I had thought that Neandrathals preceded the Homo sapiens stage. But no, we were the more cunning fighters and we extermined them all.   Our history is a violent and competitive from the start. It was an eye opening exhibit.

I try to look for kindness every day. While we were waiting for our bus, another bus on a different route pulled up and two tourists emerged complete with guidebooks and camera. The driver noticed that one woman left her hat on her seat. He stopped the bus and called out to her. She was so grateful and embarrassed. The bus driver just smiled and pulled away.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The good fortune of having a great teacher

Several years ago I took summer courses at the University of Toronto to improve my Hebrew. The teachers were faculty from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Their style of teaching was imaginative and student focused. They taught us well. I feel that a good teacher is a lifetime gift.

Before I left Toronto, I contacted them in case they might be available for a visit. One teacher met us at our hotel. We went shopping for food for the visit. The photo that I posted to FB today was taken at     the amazing outside market in downtown Jerusalem. We bought beautiful cheese and fruit and nuts etc for the visit.

 It is very hot today in Jerusalem. She took a tram and a bus and a walk to get here. I was so moved by her kind gesture to meet me.  She retired a few months ago.  She is studying the many cultures of her former students and travelling to other countries to see for herself.  Those students had impressed her so much.

My other teacher visited with us along with her husband. They drove here from their home in another town.  We went for dinner in a local outdoor restaurant. I learned about her current assignment. She wrote a new textbook for her students because the text that was available was inappropriate for their needs.

It was a good day.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Visiting the Western Wall

In Jerusalem, it is still very hot. Although it's technically impossible, I always feel like I am walking uphill today.

The Western Wall is a remenant of Wall around the second Temple that was destroyed by the Romans over 2000 years ago. It's one of the few pilgrimage destinations in Judaism. People pray there in part to identify with the whole Jewish people. On every visit to Israel I visit the Wall. Over the years I have noticed several changes in the dynamics here. Certain groups of ultra orthodox have control of the area. Over the years, they have restricted access to about 25% of the available Wall prayer space to women. The majority of prayer space is reserved for the men.

The women's section was particularly busy today. I could not get within touching distance of the wall by several meters. My photo illustrates the challenge.

Another change, which was for the better, was a big sign offering meals to those in need very close to the Wall area. In this area with so many restrictions, kindness is not forgotten.

Walking in Jerusalem 48 years after reunification

We arrived on a crowded intercity bus from Tel Aviv in the morning on the Jerusalem Day holiday. Traffic was very dense with cars and trucks, horns blowing, people crossing between cars, motorcycles weaving around lanes all in 34 degree heat in full sun. It was a school holiday and there were children in the streets everywhere. We saw groups of teens, parents with small kids, soldiers with heavy back packs and long guns slung over their shoulders, Boy Scouts in uniforms, people wearing white shirts in celebration of the reunification of the city almost 50 years ago.

Jerusalem is a stone city. Apartment buildings, houses, roads and sidewalks are built from the golden white chunks of stone that are dug out to form foundations and shaped by masons to become the building blocks for the project..  Walking on the hilly streets is challenging on a hot day as the heat is also reflected back on you by the stones. Every long walk up and down stony hilled streets is aerobics. Seniors with infirmities and mothers with strollers and small children in tow had the toughest times.

We could not find the small hotel we were seeking. Every person whom I asked suggested we walk straight for 2 blocks and turn left. I finally approached 2 young women who cheerfully looked up the address on their iPhones and then also called the front desk for direction. They were heading to the City celebrations but went out of their way to walk us to the front door.  One woman was so proud of her city that she caught a discarded plastic bag in mid air and put it in the nearest garbage receptical. We would not have spotted the hotel because there is no sign. It is over stores at street level in an refurbished 100 year old building. The guy at the small front desk greeted us with a broad smile. "You were the guys who phoned? Welcome."

Monday, May 11, 2015


Getting reading for travel is such challenging task. I am preparing for holiday. How much should we leave to chance?  I am not only talking about choosing what to pack. Usually, I try to learn a few dozen words in the language of the counties we are visiting. This time, I have not prepared.  I read histories of the places and recent fiction to get a feel of the place. I did not get to that step in my plans either.   I am flying without all my usual preparation. 

I spoke with some friends who travel frequently. "Leave yourself open to the surprise, the frustration, the unique experiences that only happen when you are open for them". I am going to do just that. I will keep a running blog. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Bus-driver's Patience

Dark and early this morning, I took the Bathurst bus to my destination.  The extra-long bus was crowded with people on their way to work.  My exit door emptied onto a pile of ice-covered snow.  I hesitated to jump off because I was trying to locate a safe part of the ice-pile.  I was the only person disembarking and the bus driver was far from me.  But he waited patiently while I chose my spot, jumped on it, got my balance again and was safely on the sidewalk.  Then, he closed the door while I was walking beside the bus, and pulled into traffic.

I realized after he took off, that if he did not take care that I was on the sidewalk safely, I could have fallen under the rear wheels of the bus.  I was so thankful for the TTC bus driver's patient kindness.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Encourager of Kindness

I was shopping at Costco last Sunday, buying more than I ever intended, when I bumped into my aunt's caregiver.  It was her day off and she had my aunt's loneliness on her mind.  My aged aunt lives in a nursing home and she told me that my aunt had few visitors over the last couple of weeks.  With her enthusiastic encouragement, I promised that I  would come for a visit in the coming week.  We visited on Friday afternoon.  There was a big sign outside her unit warning visitors of respiratory infections within.  Residents could not leave the unit and visitors must be sure of their own good health status when visiting.

My aunt has been confined to a wheelchair for several years and suffers from deafness.  It is frustrating for her to carry on a friendly conversation with other people.  The ambient noise prevents her from hearing anyone clearly.  She looks into the middle distance in boredom.  She looked very pretty when we visited.  The caregiver had just done up her hair and put on a fresh coat of nail polish.  When my husband and I sat down to chat, she ignored me at first and then looked up in surprise to see us visiting.  It was quiet in her room so we could chat more easily and the time flew buy.  When we got up to leave, my aunt said to me "I have enjoyed every single minute of this visit" 

I had not been planning a special visit to her this week but her very caring attendant encouraged me to see my lonely aunt and she made all the difference to my aunt and to me.  The caregiver's kindness had brought out the better me.