Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Stories My Father Told Me

 

Just Released!

Stories My Father Told Me: From Warsaw, Moscow, Algeria, Siberia, Kazakhstan, Dominican Republic

I wrote this book based on a memoir my father wrote for me late in his life and stories I had heard at the dining table over the years. These are stories from far off places, in far off and very different times. And yet they are of everyday people doing everyday things. They are the stories of my father, Rafał Feliks Buszejkin who was born in Warsaw in 1912.

In his stories he explained what he and the other children did in Russia in the 1910s to entertain themselves in the winter. He never attended cheder, but with a tutor, he memorized his speech for his Bar Mitzvah at the Great Synagogue of Warsaw. In high school there was that band of youths who played poker and got into mischief. He was one of them. He boxed, he worked out and built his muscles, he did track and field, raced bicycles. He failed his last year of high school. He was not a typical Eastern European Jew of that time.

He told stories of wolves in the forest in 1917, and bankruptcy at home in 1933. Stories of university days in France and months spent with Sephardic Jews in a small desert town in Algeria where he set up a Maccabi sports club.

There are love stories, stories of rich men who lose it all and poor ones who become rich. Because he had studied agronomy, he was employed all through the war and all through his life. His war-time stories from Siberia tell of hard work, trying to have enough to eat, and avoiding the NKVD. The Kazakh stories tell of a mix of western and eastern cultures, working for a government agency supervising the agriculture at five kolkhozes, living among the Kazakhs, sharing their food, drink, and yurts, and of spending two months in a Soviet prison for refusing Soviet citizenship.

Postwar brought him from the steppes of Kazakhstan to the French Riviera, then to the Dominican Republic where he farmed in a collective Jewish refugee settlement. And finally, the United States, where there were jobs, the possibility of making a good life, and no secret police.

The book is available as ebook or paperback on Amazon, other online retailers, and your favorite bookshop where you would probably need to order it. If you read it, please let me know what you think. And if you like it, please leave a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or other social media if you can. Thanks!

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Berkeley's Falcons

Annie in 2023
Berkeley has had a pair of peregrine falcons nesting at the top of the campanile in the center of University of California campus for several years. Annie is the matriarch and she started nesting there with her first partner who eventually died. Since then she has had other partners. Since peregrines tend to mate for life, it is believe that the other two also died, possibly of avian flu, but they were not tagged, so no one knows for sure. Annie's new mate is Archie who arrived recently, just in time to start the reproduction cycle, and has been doing a great job of parenting.

The university, via the Cal Falcons group, set up livestream cameras a few years ago. Right now everyone is watching the one pointed at the nest where there are four tiny, fluffy, white chicks. When they get older and start to move around and leave the nest, there will be more activity at the other cameras that are pointed to different ledges. All the cameras run 24/7 and can be found on YouTube or the Cal Falcons website. (Cal Falcons is also on Facebook and Instagram.)

Today, Saturday, we are watching the five-day-old chicks having their breakfast.  At first you see them on their own. (Know that one or both of the parents are nearby. The chicks are never unattended.) Then they start to squeal and a few seconds later one of the adults enters the nest. This is Archie. A few moments later Annie comes with breakfast and Archie leaves. There is no doubt that Annie is queen of the roost and calls the shots.

Click here to see the clip of today’s breakfast. Yum. 

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Living with a Bitch

Sweet Pea, poor old girl, is in heat. They told me when I adopted her that she hadn't been sterilized but that she was considered too old for the operation. She is now sticking her butt with her tail straight up into the face of any dog that comes along. It's embarrassing! I have to be vigilant that nothing comes of it. One old pooch moved really fast! That was Teresa’s dog, Rubio, a senior she rescued who was once probably a hunting dog and who is now lame. Sweet Pea is in heat and love is in the air.

I wrote that to a friend a few weeks ago in the middle of this upsetting time which, now, thank God, is over. Bitches, it seems, are never too old to have their periods, and in many cases, as in the case with Sweet Pea, each time it lasts for a good four weeks.

The little girl is a sprite with lots of energy. In heat she’s superdog. Or should I say superbitch? I made the mistake of taking her out for one of our country walks so she could get some exercise, and let her off the leash when we were on the path. She was fine on the way out, but when I turned around to go back, she ran ahead and never stopped! I was afraid she would get to the end and run out into the road. She wouldn’t come when I called her, and I couldn’t go fast enough to catch her! But thank goodness, she happened to find a male dog along the way and stopped to stick her butt into his face. If not, I don’t know what would have happened.

I have trouble referring to Sweet Pea as a bitch. I mean, it just doesn’t sound nice. In Catalan it’s nicer. Dog is “gos” and a female dog is “gossa.” A small dog is “gosset” and a small female dog is “gosseta.” It’s all very sweet. When you curse at someone, you don’t call them a female dog, you call them the son of a whore or “cabron,” a goat. A male goat. 

Kings

From 6 January...

Today is El Dia de Reis – the three Kings of the Orient. These were originally considered to be astronomers, mathematicians, or scientists who, guided by a star, came bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. The holiday is preceded the evening before by a parade in just about every city, town, and village, where the Kings ride on floats through the streets, throwing candy to those watching from the sides. In cities, the amount of candy they throw is measured in thousands of kilos.

Traditionally, because it was the Kings who brought presents for the baby Jesus, it was the Kings, rather than Santa who is not traditional here, who brought presents for children. Kids write letters to their favorite king in advance. There are special mail boxes where you can leave the letter, or you can take it to the post office. Usually a couple of days before the parade, the Kings’ pages will set up an encampment in town where children can bring their letters directly. If they are good, on the morning of the 6th they might get what they asked for. If they are naughty, they’ll get a piece of charcoal. Years ago, this was actually a valuable gift for a child in a poor household. Now it is made of spun sugar and dyed black.

The Kings are more colorful, more exotic, and more surprising than Santa. They call them the Kings of the Orient, but Melcior comes from Europe, Gaspar comes from Asia, and Baltasar comes from Africa. Children leave things for the Kings that night, after the parade: water for their camels, and pieces of torrons and cookies and something to drink for the Kings

Sometimes the Kings arrive earlier in the day on the 5th to hold court before the parade. In that case, they will arrive together in various forms of transportation, depending somewhat on the budget of the municipality. In Barcelona and Tarragona, they arrive by boat in the harbor. In Lleida they arrive by train. I remember one year when they arrived somewhere by helicopter. For the parade, they ride on their floats with the assembled entourage which easily numbers in the hundreds, with their pages and countless other floats, bands, and drummers – all local people with the possible exception of a professional comedian or comic troupe -- and they all parade through town throwing confetti and candy. Years ago there would be crews strategically placed between acts to clean up the poop of the camels, horses, or donkeys that were in the parade. But animal welfare groups won the battle to keep live animals out of most of the parades.

When they throw candy to the crowd, there will be those who come with an umbrella and hold it upside down in order to get more than their share. I imagine those are the ones who receive pieces of charcoal for their gift at home the next morning. 



Immaculate Conception

This week is a double-hitter for holidays. Today, the 6th of December is El Dia de la Constitució, a Spanish holiday celebrating the Spanish Constitution. This is a holiday that is not much valued in Catalonia where people feel they get the short end of any Spanish stick, but it is a legal holiday so it has the value of many things being closed and many people getting the day off.

Two days later comes La Immaculada Concepció, also known as La Purissima. I always thought that this celebrated Mary’s immaculate conception of her baby Jesus, never mind that the timing was off, since he was born on the 25th. But when there are so many miracles being celebrated, the miracle of those eight and a half months would have been just one more.

But no, I was wrong, and apparently I am not alone, as there are many Catalans who also don’t know what the holiday is about. La Concepció celebrates the immaculate conception of Mary by her mother Saint Anne. It seems virginal conceptions run in the family. And of course Mary’s virginal conception of Christ takes place on the Feast of the Annunciation, as featured on any number of paintings, on 25 March, nine months before Christmas, the kind of timing you might expect.

So what does it all mean? It means that many people get two days off from work this week, allowing them not necessarily to go to church as they are supposed to, but to go skiing. Two days off in one week means a pont (bridge) which means they add an extra day in between or at the end to tie it to a weekend, and make it into a long weekend. Sadly there is very little snow, but with a five-day weekend, there is still time for a miracle.

Over 400,000 vehicles left Barcelona for the long weekend and what with accidents and breakdowns and so many cars on the road at the same time, many of them got stuck in traffic. Among other traffic jams, those who were headed to France had a long wait at the border near me with 30 kilometers of back up. For some, there are no miracles. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Sweet Pea the Pilgrim

 

Sweet Pea has come a long way from how she was when I first adopted her in early June. At that time, she didn’t seem to me to be frightened; she didn’t shake or cower, she ate, she pooped, she liked to be petted, she seemed normal. But when you adopt a dog whose history you know nothing about, and one who has just spent a month in a shelter, you don’t really know what normal is.

Normal began to manifest itself after a couple of months. That is when she would meet me at the door when I came in, jumping like a mad person. It was the same when it was time for a walk and I went to change my shoes – something I could hardly do because she was jumping up and down and running all around, and I couldn’t get my laces tied. And all of a sudden she just had a lot more energy. She walked faster and could go farther.

What took longer was to see her begin to enjoy walking out in the fields. One of my greatest pleasures with Cupcake was to go walking out in the fields, or the woods, or at the beach. He enjoyed it as much as I did, if not more. So it was disappointing when Sweet Pea didn’t seem to like it. I had no idea if it was too hot, or if she was afraid, or if she was urban dog who had never been in that kind of environment where there were no buildings or sidewalks, new smells, and she could walk without a leash. Maybe she felt uncomfortable being untethered?

But now, finally, she has joined the doggy walking hall of fame. Today, for the second time, she did the whole circular route – about an hour’s walk, in the fields by Vilabertran. She did it at a good clip, looking like she was collecting data to add to her lift list and enjoying herself.

The path we take around the fields is one short section of the Camino de Santiago. For any pilgrim, the Camino begins at his door. Over the centuries, many routes were established. Now, there are 281 Caminos listed, encompassing more than 51,500 miles of routes through 29 different countries. Forty-nine of them are in Spain, and these cover almost 9,940 miles. One of those connects the Monastery of Santa Maria in Vilabertran with the Sant Pere church in Figueres.

Although I just go out there to enjoy walking with no cars around, breathe the fresh air, and observe the changing crops and Pyrenees Mountains in the distance, I am aware that for many, the Camino is a religious observation and I always feel that when I walk on that path, I am taking part in an historical activity.

In the early Middle Ages, Santiago de Compostela became the third most important pilgrimage destination after Jerusalem and Rome. Making a pilgrimage was one of the most important things you could do to save your immortal soul in those days. By the 13th century 500,000 pilgrims would be walking the Camino each year. Walking the Camino has made a comeback in modern times and whereas in 1985, about 800 people walked enough sections of the Camino to be counted, in 2019 that number jumped to 350,000. They came from 190 countries. In addition to the land routes, there are maritime routes. The longest of these is the Antarctic Route (Camino Antártico) that begins at the Spanish research base, Gabriel de Castilla on Deception Island, 8745 miles from Santiago.

Sweet Pea and I are not being counted. We have not signed up for our Camino Passport and we do not wear scallop shells, although we do see the shell symbol on posted signs that we pass and in the pavement near the monastery. We don’t do the walk for religious reasons and we are not headed for Santiago, but walking out there is good for your soul whether you are religious or not.

1 October

 

How could it be possible in any democracy that voting would be a crime?

1 October 2023, marked six years since the Catalans voted on a referendum to decide whether or not they wanted to remain part of Spain. The Spanish state did everything it could to stop the vote. They deemed it illegal, they hunted down anyone who might be printing the ballots, or making any other kinds of preparations, and when it looked like all their efforts to find the millions of printed ballots had failed, they sent in 20,000 troops and housed them on large ships in Barcelona harbor, ships that had Tweety and other cartoon characters painted on the sides. At first it made them look like fools, but on the day, they looked like fascists.

On 1 October 2017, these troops donned their riot gear and dressed in black they went out and beat up hundreds of unarmed citizens who had gone to polling places to vote. Young, old, it didn’t matter. Catalans were the enemy. The images of police in riot gear bludgeoning unarmed people, some elderly, others with children in tow, were captured on countless photos and videos and were shown on pretty much every news media around the world, although it isn’t clear if they saw any of it on Spanish television.

Afterwards, the New York Times repeatedly reported on the “botched” referendum, as if the failure had been because of some sort of incompetence of the Catalans, and always added that it had been illegal.

The Charter of the United Nations states that all peoples have a right to self-determination. That is what the referendum was about. The question it was asking was Voleu que Catalunya sigui un estat independent en forma de república? Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state in the form of a republic? (Note that Spain is not a republic, it is a monarchy.) People could vote yes or no. Since there had been no agreement with the Spanish government, the referendum was not binding, so that it was really only a measure of what Catalan citizens wanted. But even that was enough to frighten Spaniards.

Over two and a quarter million people turned out to vote that day, that is, 43 percent of registered voters turned out in spite of government threats. Slightly more than 92 percent of them voted Yes; and less than 8 percent voted No.

It seemed to me that all those intellectuals who read The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times, the EU, and all the rest of them, would stop to ask themselves how it could be in a democracy that voting on a referendum would be illegal? And how could they buy it that peaceful, unarmed people who were going to drop ballots could be violently attacked by riot police (they had seen the videos) and then be called terrorists by the Spanish media and the Spanish government.

There were 1066 reported cases of victims of police violence on the day of voting – that is, people who showed up at clinics and hospitals to be treated for wounds. One man lost an eye when he was hit in the face with a rubber bullet. Rubber bullets are illegal in Catalonia and Catalan police cannot use them, but Spanish police are a law unto themselves. To watch them on the television that day was to see a reincarnation of the German Nazi bullies who enjoyed hurting people who had no way of defending themselves.

One thousand four hundred and thirty-two people have been investigated for criminal acts connected to the referendum. Not all of them have come to trial, but each one has had to find legal help and live through the nightmare that criminal investigation engenders. Although when I looked it up on the internet, I was told that in Spain, jury trial “is deeply embedded in its constitutional evolution,” I have lived in Spain for over twenty years and don’t remember ever hearing of even one jury trial in the country. As in all trials, the so-called Catalan terrorists and traitors have been tried by judges. And judges are all appointed by the government in power, whether that is the Popular Party or the Socialist Party, both of which are vehemently anti-independence. They have to be because you can’t win a general Spanish election if you support Catalonia, much less Catalan independence.

Back to the New York Times. It was Rafael Minder, their former correspondent from Madrid who continuously wrote that the referendum was botched – a loaded word. He has since left the NY Times, hopefully they got rid of him because of his botched work as a supposedly unbiased and knowledgeable journalist (I can say that because I am not a journalist, I am a blogger) but maybe he went on to the greener pastures of the Financial Times under a bright sun.

When you think that with 20,000 additional police (many of them paramilitary) sent to prevent a peaceful civilian mobilization of citizens from voting, and yet two and a quarter million people did vote (on printed ballots that all the Spanish police never could find ahead of time), the Catalan referendum was not really botched at all. It was a great success. Sadly for the Catalans, independence is still off somewhere, beyond the horizon, but I hope that at some point Americans and others begin to give them some support. After all, wasn’t it in 1776 that we Americans won our own independence? It’s not such a new concept.