Saturday, June 19, 2010


Chagall: A BiographyI recently finished reading Chagall by Jackie Wullschlager, a biography of the Jewish-Russian painter. Marc Chagall has long been among my favorite painters because of the emotions his Jewish images evoke. Even though my parents were not from the shtetl (they were urbanites from Warsaw and spoke Polish rather than Yiddish at home), the shtetl represents, to me, my history and cultural background. It was the most common eastern European Jewish experience, the one I am most familiar with, and Chagall is the one who immortalized it in pictures.

Chagall came from a family of religious Hassidic Jews, and although as an adult he was not observant, he remained tied to his Jewish roots. He married, Bella, the woman he fell in love with as a young man, and adored her until she died in New York, soon after the end of World War II. She was from the same background and indeed the same town as he and during her life she served as his muse, fostering memories and connections to the old world that they had both left behind.

Chagall went to live illegally beyond the pale (the pale of settlement within which Russian Jews were required to live) when he went to St. Petersburg to study art. He and Bella left Russia after the Revolution, lived briefly in Germany and then settled in France. When Jews came into danger in France during the World War II occupation, the Chagalls managed to leave Europe and go to New York where they stayed until the War was over. Of all the places he lived, Chagall felt the most out of place in the U.S. (for cultural and artistic reasons), and the most comfortable and assimilated in France. But it seemed that he never felt totally at home anywhere and never lost his longing for Russia. In Russia he was considered suspect for not following the painting style promoted by the Party. In France he was accepted as an artist, but when French anti-Semitism flared up during the occupation, he came close to becoming a victim. He visited Israel more than once but never felt comfortable there either. It even took some doing to get him to design the windows for Hadassah as he felt that Israelis had no appreciation for art. In the end, France was where he chose to live for most of his life. That was the place where art was appreciated and where he could best be himself and an artist.

To become a painter he needed to go to Paris, but his heart was always in Russian, in Vitebsk, the town he came from. Vitebsk appears repeatedly in many of his paintings as does Bella. He painted her repeatedly during her lifetime, during the years he was with his lover Virginia, and during the years he was with his second wife Vava. He never stopped painting Bella. Vava became extremely important in his life, but Bella remained with him always.

I was very moved by Chagall’s devotion to Bella and his identification and love of his homeland. He drew on his roots all his life; without them there would have been no art. I looked him up in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia where he was said to be a Russian-French artist. They somehow managed to overlook that underlying his passports, he was Jewish, and that was the most consistent and defining element of his art. There were other Jewish artists at that time such as Jacques (Chaim) Lipchitz, Amedeo Modigliani, or Chaim Soutine, but theirs isn’t Jewish art. To a large extent, our image of what Russian stetl life looked like comes from Chagall paintings – at least mine does.

I visited Chagall’s museum in Nice, conveniently located in Cimiez, near my hotel, expecting to see a fiddler on a roof and circus images, but instead saw huge Biblical canvases. I like to buy CDs to play at home and remember my travels with and in the museum’s gift shop I found two. These two have turned out to be favorites.

Musiques De ChagallOn my first visit I bought Chants traditionnels de l’Ancienne Russie sung by the Choeur d’Hommes de Moscou, led by Anatoly Grindenko. It is the most wonderful collection of old Russian folk songs I have ever heard and a CD I never get tired of hearing. Being so happy with that first purchase, I made a beeline to the gift shop on my second visit two years later. I didn’t find the Romanian violinist that I had passed up the first time, but I did find Les Musiques de Chagall which I like for its variety (it includes a few cuts from the Chants traditionnels as well as Yiddish songs, Klezmer music, Tchaikovsky, Bloch,Mozart, Bach, Ravel, and Messiaen – all music that related to Chagall’s life. That led me to yet another CD of one of the groups on Les Musiques de Chagall, Tenderness and Madness Passion with Ami Flammer, Moshe Leiser, and Gérard Barreaux, that I later bought online from Amazon. This group of musicians lives in Paris and gets together to play Yiddish music and keep it alive. They are excellent.

Writing to a friend while living in France in 1929 Chagall said, “There is not a single Jew here, or even a Russian. So we feel our Jewishness even more…” I think that was an exaggeration for in fact France had both Russians and Jews. But I know how he felt.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


In the last few weeks I’ve had a very lively time with three great sets of visitors, starting with Bill and his wife Anita, who came in mid-June accompanied by friends of theirs. I’ve known Bill since 1977 when he entered the undergraduate program to study photography and I was working at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. He and I had Los Angeles in common, and over the years we would sometimes drive down to L.A. together to visit our respective friends and families, poor six-foot tall Bill with a delicate back scrunched into my low-flying Volvo P1800.

Many years ago when Anita still lived in Germany, she was planning a trip with another couple and advertised in the local paper for a traveling companion. Dorith, recently divorced and wanting to travel was putting an ad in the same paper but missed the deadline. Later, when Dorith was reading through a copy, she found her own ad, only it had been placed by someone else. The two of them have been traveling companions and good friends ever since.

We started out with the great city market La Boqueria where the fruits and veggies are set out like works of art; then we made our way through the Barri Gotic, the old part of town where I used to live. Anita had read The Shadow of the Wind, so she was very pleased to be able to visit two locations mentioned in the book: the lovely Plaça Reial where the ethereal (and blind) Clara Barceló lived in a beautiful 19th century apartment, and the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri where the character, whose name I have forgotten, the woman who worked for Julian’s publisher used to live. The Plaça de Sant Felip Neri is a romantic, tiny square, and one of my favorite spots in the city. It sits over what was once a medieval cemetery, but more notable are the walls of the Església Sant Neri, marred by countless chips from where the bullets of firing squads struck when Franco troops executed people during the Spanish Civil War.

I had booked a table at one of my favorite Barcelona restaurants, Agut on Carrer Gignas. The German visitors were pleased. Not only did it have a good review in their guidebook, but the name that means “Oh good!” in German was an auspicious sign. Anita had the menu del dia but the rest of us ordered a la carte. I had grilled baby squid with blood sausage sauce that may sound a bit over the top, but was wonderful, the sauce being tasty but mild and not overpowering the squid.

A few days after I saw Bill I went back into Barcelona to see Sue and her mom. I also know Sue from Cal where she also studied photography and in fact, Bill and Sue vaguely know each other. When I knew Sue at Cal she was making a name for herself as a rodeo photographer. One of the pictures I have of hers is a shot of three cowboys, sitting on a bench, waiting their turn to compete while laughing and having a good time. It is a wonderful image of camaraderie that I have always kept on the wall of my dining room.

Sue’s mom is in her 70s and is in the process of taking a cruise with each one of her three daughters. The first was a river cruise down the Elbe River from Berlin to Prague; later she will sail through the Panama Canal. Her cruise with Sue started from Barcelona, going down the Spanish coast to Gibraltar and then up the other side to Rouen, stopping at Valencia, Cadiz, Lisbon, Oporto, La Coruña, Bilbao, Bordeaux, Guernsey. They came a few days early to see Barcelona and especially some of Gaudí’s buildings.

By the time we got out of their hotel it was late, so we set off walking to the old part of town for lunch at an historic artist hangout. The 4 Gats looks like it says the 4 Cats, and oddly enough it does, the Catalan word for cat being gat. This is neat because that way, even if you misread the name, you’re still right. Designed by Josep Puig i Caldafalch, a contemporary of Antoni Gaudí, it is a colorful restaurant and bar loaded with tiles on the walls and an old fashioned feel and was where all the artists (including Picasso) hung out in the early 20th century. It is very popular with tourists but I think locals like it too; it’s a good place to enjoy some nostalgia and decent food.

During lunch Mom asked if I knew where there were some Roman columns standing within an office building. She had seen it many years ago and wouldn’t mind another look. It just so happened that I did know, so after lunch we went there. The two thousand-year-old Roman columns, from what was the Temple of Augustus, now sit in an interior courtyard of a building only a few hundred years old, on a tiny, narrow street, off the beaten track. Even as you enter the building entry courtyard, you don’t see the columns; you must go to the back and turn before they come into view. We entered, we turned, we stepped into the inner sanctum, and Sue fell. She was so busy looking up and taking photos that she didn’t see the three stairs that led down to the bottom of the courtyard. There she was, head near the ground, feet up towards us. Her mom and I started towards her to help her up but Mom didn’t notice that we were standing on a ledge – there was no railing. Next thing, Mom went off the three-foot cliff onto the concrete floor below.

I didn’t know what to do first: help Sue up, get down to the level below to see to her mother, or call an ambulance. A couple of French tourists came to help us and in the end, both the women were all right. Unbelievable. These two women may have difficulty staying on their feet, but they’re tough. After resting for a while, they decided they were not up for the walk back to the hotel, so they climbed into a taxi and set off to collect their luggage and then head for the port and their cruise ship. Sue told me later that her mom took another fall at Gibraltar. She wasn’t seriously hurt there either but she bled a lot and was attended to by the very cute ship’s doctor.

The week after Sue’s visit, Shelley came. I first knew Shelley in Los Angeles when she was probably about 12 and I was 18 and her counselor in a Jewish youth organization. Now, some 45 years later, she is a lovely woman with grown children. She was here with her husband and daughter and another couple with their daughter. The two daughters had been studying in Spain.

We met on Passeig de Gracia and since it wasn’t yet time for lunch but people were hungry, we walked down to the Boqueria where they bought somewhat expensive prepared, cut up fruit and I got a strawberry and coconut juice smoothie. There are many stands now in the Boqueria that cater to tourists and sell this kind of thing, where just a few years ago, when I first moved here, there wasn’t even one. But once you work your way in past the entrance, it is still the same old wonderful market with an impressive variety of fruit, vegetables, fish and seafood, meat, and all manner of edibles all beautifully laid out.

Hunger abated, we walked a little around the Barri Gotic before heading off for lunch. We went to what was once the mikvah (ritual baths), now a back room in an upscale furniture and tchotchkes store, and then to where the main Jewish synagogue of Barcelona once was. This is the area that was the ghetto before the Jews were thrown out. There is something sad in that; you get a feeling of something lost. And the fact is that where I used to live was also in the ghetto, although it took a while before I found that out; the original ghetto ended at a street about two blocks away. But at some point the ghetto was enlarged and our apartment was within that area. My mother used to say that she thought she descended from Spanish Jews. But as far as I know, that was because she looked Spanish rather than because of any information or legend passed down through her family. Still, that area of Barcelona gives me a feeling of connecting with my past, even though it is unlikely that my past took place there.

The Barri Gotic is a wonderful part of the city that gives me the feeling when I walk the streets that I have gone back in time. The streets are very narrow – like alleyways many of them – and some of the stone buildings have settled so that they lean – precariously, you could say -- lending an air of claustrophobia to those walking below. I enjoy being in a place where history is not only in books, but in the streets. People have been living stacked up in these apartment buildings for many hundreds of years. The building where we used to live was about three hundred years old. The entry and stairway looked worn and shabby, but the apartments, with their tall ceilings and French door windows, the beamed ceilings, and the wonderful tiled floors of those apartments that had not been modernized were beautiful. Our apartment had been modernized and we no longer had the pretty old checkerboard floor (that you could see in one tiny space that had been closeted over, and the windows were now aluminum), but the twelve-foot high beamed ceiling remained.

Shelley and the group wanted the option of the best food, so we went for lunch to Agut where I once again ordered those marvelous little calamaris with the blood sausage sauce. Some of the others were a little put off, but when they tasted mine, they agreed that it was wonderful. After an excellent meal we walked back into the Barri Gotic, heading for the Plaça Sant Jaume, and it just so happened that the city hall had all its special rooms open for public viewing, as part of the city celebration of Corpus. I had to keep reassuring my guests that what looked like a museum was a real, functioning city hall. In the entry, the city giants and some of the bestiary was on view because of the holiday where they would be paraded around town as part of the celebration. Later, Shelley and I went into a couple of the medieval courtyards where the Ou com balla, or dancing egg, a Barcelona tradition for Corpus and Christmas, was on display, bouncing on top of a jet stream in ancient fountains decorated with fresh flowers.

Being with Shelley, Joanne, and the rest of her group was comforting – a bit like corresponding with Irene. They all live in Berkeley, my home town (I adopted it) and a place I will always identify with. We seemed to have a lot in common, and we didn’t just talk, we schmoozed. Lots of Yiddish words peppered our day, giving me a very pleasant sensation of familiarity.

Photo credits:
Bill, Anita Carstensen
The Boqueria, Bill Johnson
Cowboys, Sue Rosoff
4 Gats, me
Roman Columns, Sue Rosoff
Shelley and me in the mikvah, Lauren Halperin
Ou Com Balla, me
Kvetch, me!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Expat or Immigrant?

I recently participated in a short discussion with an online book group about the book and film version of Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. Everyone liked the book, but not everyone liked the film. As often happens, the film wasn’t true to the book. In fact, I would say that in this case, the film had almost nothing to do with the book except that in both an American woman buys a villa in Tuscany and proceeds to fix it up. And, truth be told, I liked the film even more than I liked the book.

In the book, Frances buys a villa in Tuscany intending to fix it and then use it for extended stays. The people she meets and the stories she tells are engaging, but she is there as a visitor, albeit an habitué. On the other hand, in the movie, Frances actually abandons the U.S. and moves to Italy. I can identify with that. It is one thing to have enough money to buy a villa somewhere pretty and fix it up beautifully so that you can go there to enjoy vacations or spend your sabbaticals; and quite another to haul yourself to a new country, leaving behind your old life to start a new one where you don’t know anyone and you don’t know the language. This Frances wasn’t a habitué; she was an expat or an immigrant.

The movie offered me much to identify with. The very appealing Polish workers who remodel Frances’s villa add to the complexity of Frances’s life because now, besides having to learn Italian, she tries to learn some Polish too. The electrician who did some work for me in Barcelona was Argentine and spoke a totally strange and unusual form of Spanish. My cleaning lady is Russian. She speaks to me in rudimentary Spanish and I speak to her in Catalan and we manage to understand each other – more or less. The guy I bought firewood from in October is Moroccan. He doesn’t speak Catalan but does speak a little English which becomes poorer when it comes time for him to do something he was paid for but hasn’t done. My next door neighbors are Swiss and speak only German. Our verbal exchanges are very, very limited. You don’t expect to find so many foreigners when you move to another country. You figure that somehow you will surmount the huge hurdle of becoming functional, hopefully fluent, in a new language, and all of a sudden you find there are many other new languages to contend with.

Adorable Pavel, one of the Poles in the movie, falls in love with the daughter of Frances’s neighbors. But the parents are opposed to the match because Pavel is a foreigner with little hope (in their opinion) of becoming a success and making their daughter happy. When Pavel asks Frances to go with him to talk to his sweetheart’s parents, they state their complaints to the match, ending up with “He has no family.” Frances replies, “Yes he does. I am his family.” I’ve seen the movie five times (I can check it out for free from my local library and most of the other choices are action films) and this part always brings tears to my eyes. I have not achieved that level of friendship.

Practially having made a study of it, the film has me thinking about what it is to be an expat, to be an immigrant, to adopt another country as your home. How far do you go to try to adapt? Generally speaking, even if you learn the language and conform to the customs, you’ll still always be a foreigner. But there are those who really do become part of their new home. Besides fitting in, cooking, shopping, dressing, behaving in the local manner, they also make real friends, not just acquaintances, and even form new families. I am very sorry to say that I have not achieved that. But then, I’m still trying.

Most of the people with whom I socialize here (in the middle of nowhere) are foreigners, like me, who came here from another country. I recently called five of them to conduct a cursory survey of their behavior in adapting to local culture, using their eating and television habits as a guide, and to see if they viewed themselves as expats, immigrants, or both.

In Spain the main meal of the day is lunch, eaten as early as 1 pm, but generally eaten at 2 and sometimes even later. Dinner is at 8 or 9 pm and usually something very light or just a snack. You only need an aerial to receive local television, although now a digital box is also required. Once you have that relatively inexpensive equipment, you can watch several free Spanish and Catalan stations. Many people here, especially foreigners, install satellites to receive TV from their home, European countries. Finally, I inquired into their self perception with regard to their status here. Did they consider themselves expatriates or immigrants and what did those two words mean to them?

First up was a man who told me they ate their main meal in the evening, at around 6 or 6:30 pm. Lunch was at 12 or 1. They did not receive local television. He considered himself an expat because he did not intend to settle here permanently but to stay until about age 70. He didn’t feel that Spain was a good place to be old.

Second was a woman who told me that they ate their main meal in the evening at 7:45; lunch was at 1:15. They sometimes watched the news and/or weather on local television, mostly they watched English TV. She couldn’t easily choose between expat and immigrant and favored “visitor” as describing her status. They were here permanently and had no plans to return to England, but the word immigrant conveyed the image of a person who was sponging off the system, so she didn’t identify with that as they are self sufficient.

One woman told me that their main meal changes from day to day, depending on how they’re feeling. Sometimes it is lunch, at about 1:30, and other times it is dinner, at 6. They receive but do not watch local television. She considers herself an expat. For her, immigrant is a person who has come to stay, while she is a resident here, but could go back, although she has no such plans at the moment.

The next, another woman and the first of my interviewees who understands and speaks Spanish told me that she used to have her main meal in the evening but recently changed that to lunch. Now her evening meal, which she has at 7 pm, is just a snack. She watches very little local television – mainly news and tennis, if it’s on. She thinks of herself as both an expat and an immigrant, although she doesn’t like the term expat because it brings to mind people who sit around and drink gin.

The fifth and last interviewee, another woman who also understands and speaks Spanish, and even writes it well, said they have their main meal in the evening at about 8:30; lunch is usually at 1. They have local as well as satellite television and watch the local for the news and weather. She is an expat. She and her husband had come to Spain as an adventure, not intending to stay. They now have their home on the market to sell and plan to move on.

I asked Manuel what the two words, expat and immigrant meant to him. He left Spain many years ago and went to live in Switzerland for a few years before moving to Panama and eventually the U.S.A. He has lived more of his life as a foreigner than as a native. He said that in Switzerland he was an immigrant because he came looking for work. In Panama he was an expat because he had been sent there to work by Nestle, his employer, putting him into the upper class. In the U.S. he was an immigrant because once again he had come looking for work. I asked him if he thought the two words had social class connotations and he said that yes, he did think so. And that’s what I find in general, that people think better of expats – they are affluent people who have a choice and a higher standing – than of immigrants who are lower or working class and usually just looking for jobs and a better life. In the film, the parents could accept Frances, who they viewed as an affluent expat, whereas they had difficulties with Pavel, a poor Polish immigrant.

I think of expat as moving away from somewhere while immigrant implies moving toward somewhere. For me, an expat is someone who is perched in a new country, possibly but not necessarily learning the new language, forsaking their home but not necessarily adopting the new one as their own. Expats are usually middle or upper middle class people who may or may not have moved to the new country permanently, but their identity and allegiance is still with the old one. Those expats who are of noble birth are emigrés.

I think of an immigrant as someone who has permanently moved to a new country, leaving the old one behind and adopting the ways of the new as much as he can. He learns the language and tries to adapt to the culture and the ways of doing things – to assimilate, but not necessarily to the extent that he abandons his own identity or history. It isn’t easy to be a good immigrant.

What does the dictionary say? In my dictionary, expatriate is defined as: 1. to banish; exile, 2. to withdraw (oneself) from residence in or allegiance to one’s native country, 3. dwelling in a foreign land; exiled. The definition for immigrant is: 1. a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence, 2. an organism found in a new habitat.

Where do I fit in? I watched only Catalan television -- news, documentaries, dramas, soap operas, and of course soccer -- for the first five years I was here. Not only was it a tool for learning the language, it also gave me insider information on current affairs, culture, history, and customs. When I bought the villa I installed satellite for the British TV that my summer renters expect to have. I feel I’m an expat in that I left my home country willingly and not because I had to. But I am first and foremost an immigrant. I’m here to stay, if not in Spain then at least in Europe. Unlike everyone else I know, I came specifically to Catalunya and not to Spain and so my efforts to learn and adapt have been locally focused. I have learned the Catalan language and a lot about Catalan culture and history. I’ve invested myself in Catalunya. If I ever move to France, I’ll be probably be an expat there and not an immigrant. I will learn French as best I can (and try to dress better), but I doubt I will make the same effort to become French as I did to become Catalan.