What Big Eyes

img_3751In one of the little towns on our Waterways of the Czars tour of Russia, we visit an actual school, where one is struck by the disparities: 800 children, ages six to seventeen, gather five days a week in a building that looks to have been built by a team of inebriates wearing blindfolds. There aren’t a lot of right angles, in other words, and many of the lintels seem to slant and dip. And yet, the curriculum appears to run circles around our typical courses of study.

Here on the left and below, a typical classroom, not at all fancy, as you can see.


And yet our Russian tour guide has this to say about the curriculum, “The pupil’s courses are compulsory, yes?

“They study the Physics, the Chemistry, the Mathematics, the Literatures.

“All children are also studying the English beginning in Fifth grade and in high school are adding a second foreign language to that, either French to German, yes.’

My guess, based on information we have so far exchanged in the last week?  That of the 25 well-fed Yanks stuffed into these slender desks not a one speaks or understands Russian. We are spotless in our ignorance.

Next, we file into a small auditorium which I suspect also serves as lunchroom and gym as the auditorium did in my own 1960s elementary school. (We called it the Cafetorium, in my mind a wonderfully jaunty, sort of Jetson-ish Space Age name. ) Here, three young girls in peasant garb sing us a lengthy folk song, during which, at regular intervals the music calls for periodic vocal yips which the girls dutifully provide even as their faces remain bland. They also swing little wooden gadgets back and forth that look like miniature venetian blinds and make the kind of clattering sound you might get on tossing a handful of Scrabble tiles down a set of stairs. The girls sing, yip and clatter for a good five minutes before bowing, shyly and adorably, and hurrying off the stage, offer us the chance to buy fanciful cloth dolls which both the boy and girl students have themselves sewn.

The dolls are female dolls, all with voluminous skirts and THIS one, we are told, is Little Red Riding Hood. But one has only to upend her, toss back her skirts and – whoops! – here under the ruffles of her petticoats is the child’s own grand-mama,  of ‘What Big Eyes You Have’ fame! She has spectacles and grey hair covered by a babushka. Another flip of the wrist, yet more tumbling and here appears the head of the Big Bad Wolf in all his ferocity!

Many of our group buy one. I do not, I think because as a child in the long ago Ozzie and Harriet years I had the American version of this doll which always unsettled me.

On our way out of the schoolhouse, we pass a handmade poster honoring a young graduate of this school who, serving the Russian army, was killed in Chechnya. In this portrait, dressed in his new uniform, he gazes manfully at the camera and we study his gaze. His story, carefully inked in block writing around his image, remains a mystery to us however, as people who can neither speak nor read the language of this country.

As we depart the school building, small and antiquated looking as it is with the cords for its electronics stretching from here to there in a way that no stateside Fire Marshall would allow, I get the feeling that these 800 children have minds far more fully furnished than our own minds here in the ‘Like Me, Buy Me, Like Me’ west.

And it comes to me at the door that perhaps the reversible doll unsettles me still not for any Freudian beast-under-the-skirts reason but because it reminds me uncomfortably of the ostrich, who also hides his head so as not to acknowledge what he does not wish to acknowledge.

russan wolf doll


That’s MISTER Jackass to You

fullsizeoutput_446cHeard onboard ship as four individuals find themselves lingering for a moment in a stateroom corridor:

Passenger One, pleasantly, after introductions: So what is your husband’s name?

Passenger Two: Jackass.

Passenger One, not having heard quite right:  I’m sorry? You say your husband isn’t traveling with you?

Passenger Two:  Nah Jackass left me years ago for his secretary.

Merry laughter all around.

Napolee-o-leon (& Others)

we went to Napoleon’s country house, where we saw with our own eyes how small the guy was: his bed looks like the popsicle stick nest you might build for your pet hamster.

homer in his underpantsIt’s two weeks now since my man and I got back from France, where the number of pictures I took as compared to the amount of food and drink I consumed stands in a ration of 1 to 1000 – and now here I am with little more to remind me of the experience but my new fat tummy. 

Lucky for us , we took this Viking Longboat cruise with two close friends who took tons of pictures. Even better, ‘she’ has written the whole trip up on her travel blog, a site which in my greedy way,  I have boarded as a pirate boards some poor sitting duck of a vessel, and helped myself to the photo booty. ‘He’ was my first friend when I moved at age 9 to our new house and found myself caught up in endless rounds of kickball and the chase-hide-and wallop game we called  “the Commies vs. the Americans. Good times.

We two couples had also gone, via this same Viking cruise company, from Budapest to Nuremberg back in 2014, when the world felt to be in far less trouble than it feels to be today. That was a dream of a trip on which I got to hang out for a while with actual Mozart, or anyway an official Mozart impersonator.  He spoke about the hard life of a professional musician which he actually is. He’s a serious guy.


This time though it was not Vienna but Paris, a city which appears to do a lot of looking back. We passed the place to which poor Marie Antoinette was brought to meet Madame La Guillotine, she  paraded for mockery’s sake in a crude wooden cart, her hair shorn and her wrists bound behind her back. We saw the monuments Napoleon brought back from Egypt where he went to further foil the British by messing up their trade routes. And, in our fancy tour bus as wide and serene as a clipper ship full-bellied with the breeze, we billowed along down the very route the Allies took after the brutal 100-day Battle of Normandy to at last reach and liberate this famous City of Lights.

On other days we went to Giverny, the estate and gardens established by the Impressionist god Claude Monet who smoked 60 cigarettes a day, slept with his best friend’s wife, and quarrelled sfrequently  with his one surviving son that the son wanted nothing to do with the place after the old man died at 86.

We saw castles and clambered over their ruined stones. We marched up and down streets with ancient stone and timber houses and even a few thatched roofs. And finally we went to Napoleon’s country house, where we saw with our own eyes how small of stature the man  really was. This is his bed, which, in the flesh looks like the the popsicle stick nest you might build for your pet hamster. Poor Josephine lived there as well until he divorced her for failing to give him a son.  


We walked in the gardens of this estate, known as Malmaison, but the tour guide apparently ran out of steam because with an hour to go before we could board the bus and go back to our cozy longboat, she told us to enjoy the gardens and disappeared .

It was 55 degrees,  the hospitality center/gift shop was closed and a layer of low grey clouds hovered above us like an omen of old.

Our two pals duly circled the large garden, admiring the roses and chatting up the other members of our expedition.  

The two of us did not. We went and sat on a stone bench – until  another Viking cruiser, from the American  South to judge by her accent, came by, declared us ‘cute’, and snapped this picture.


Then she made us get up and walk to a spot 100 feet away  where she snapped another.


The lesson of that moment? Stick around long enough and you too can become a monument. 😛


Musings at the Museum

the-david1Seeing France by cruising alone the Seine is amazing enough but then when you disembark and wander on your own, the wonders just multiply. The Museé d’Orsay in Paris which I spent three hours in was by far the most instructive and inviting museum I have ever visited, shocking as it was to see how laid-back the staff is. Dozens of people snap away with their cameras and camera apps with nary a word of admonishment from the guards. In fact, in the many small galleries, they don’t even have guards. It’s true that a thin wire at about shin level walls each pictures off from the public but I felt sure that if I’d really wanted to I could have leaned in and licked the very paint on any number of them.

I loved the sculptures too. The young David who slew Goliath is there. Not Michelangelo’s David in his famous beefcake iteration,which you see above, nor Donatello’s David either who looks like a sweet fey youth in his mother’s Easter bonnet.donatello

These are both in Florence.

Here at the Museé  D’Orsay, you see the Antonin Mercié David who looks like this: 

david by Antonin Mercié

But really the  place is most known for its 19th century stuff, works by artists who looked not toward Biblical or Classical themes but more toward landscapes and still lifes and intimate ‘candid’ portraits, of ladies, say, undressing for the bath.

Here inside these walls is Van Gogh, not dead by his own hand at 36, but alive, his spirit shimmering away in the lines of this cathedral he captured in paint.

Van Gogh church Auvers-sur-Oise

Manet lives at this museum too as I said here the other day and Gauguin with his island Edens,and  Cezanne, and of course that long-lived patriarch Claude Monet who could make the same haystack, the same cathedral front at Rouen look a hundred different ways by painting them at different times of the day in a variety of different lights.   

The visit was just thrilling to me. I sat looking at the works as much as I walked those halls and chambers, all oblivious to the fact that inches away on the other side of the wall Time was also ticking away my own life as this video I took will show. I suspect it was a stiff wind and the limber shafts of the clock’s two hands that did it but still, that minute hand is really moving. Signs and reminders all around us, folks, signs and reminders.




Another Fun Couple Takes a Trip

Here now: A man who looks to be straight out of a Van Gogh watercolor standing in the water and fishing! Here now: A windmill that goes back to the time of Marie Antoinette and her Marge Simpson hairdo!

happy airplaneYou get to the airport and find that your flight has been cancelled.

It’s a flight to Iceland. And it’s cancelled.

So much for the strange beauty of wide skies, and treeless plains!

You wait an eternity to be told that now you will instead be flying to Frankfurt. Bring out the ketchup and mustard!

Still, you know you can’t be TOO mad since your final destination is Paris and sure enough you do get to Paris eventually where, you are interested to see, the old sidewalk pissoirs have long since been replaced by wondrous new unisex sidewalks booths called Sanisettes, in which, when you touch a final button, cascades of water swirl in, washing everything in sight clean, clean, clean and disinfecting it all too. And the pissoir, in case you don’t know was for over 350 years the standard Parisian accommodation for any man who felt the need to make water. It featured a panel from knees to shoulders that blocked out the key parts of his anatomy while still allowing him to stand and chat companionably with his pals.

classic Paris pissoir

Hard to believe, right?

Anyway, now here you are wearin’ out your Nikes and seein’ the sights, and then at night inhaling the great food and tossing back the complimentary mealtime beers and wines on a riverboat that will take you, via the Seine, from Paris the City of Lights to Normandy and back with several bracing stops along the way.

The ship’s windows are wide and the sights are lovely. (Here now: A man who looks to be straight out of a Van Gogh watercolor standing in the water and fishing! Here now: A windmill that goes back to the time of Marie Antoinette and her Marge Simpson hairdo!) And the rolling waters! The waters alone!

You feel like a baby, and a fat happy baby at that. You turn to your travel buddies while dunking your face into your second glass of the good red wine.

“What could go wrong from here?” you burble, “unless we break a tooth and see a giant jagged crater open up in our mouth.”

You laugh hilariously at your own joke, and then, not 12 hours later, while eating the good French bread, exactly that happens, and it happens to you.

But hey, it’s your all-too-short visit to this place. Your dentist will be there when you get back, and for now you’re just another stylish couple having fun in France. 🙂 

Fun couple goes to France


Mangia Mangia

The way that last post ended  “Nice eat you?”  really rings true for me because food does eat you, in the sense that it slowly consumes the “you” you once were, leaving in its place a much more, shall we say, upholstered version. As recently as 2001 I looked as thin as Flat Stanley. For at least a year after my romance with the Atkins Diet. I looked like an Aerobed just pulled from the box.

Now though? Well let’s just say I inflated, largely due to trips like this one in Italy where they bring fresh hot bread to the table the second you sit down and leave you alone with it for a whole ten minutes before then setting down several carafes brimming with the local wines that taste like the kiss of God himself on a hillside in springtime.

We’ve been eating this week in Italy my seven college pals and I, sleeping walking, eating, sleeping, walking, eating – all under the watchful eye of an eighth pal who has lived here for 25 years and so can say all the hard words like the one for ice – ghiaccio – which when I try to say it sounds like I’m about to spit a wad of chewing tobacco clear across the room and which in any case the bartenders can’t understand.

Here’s the evidence, with my hand pointing to it like all those funny Renaissance paintings where the St. John character looks right out at the viewer as if to say. “Do you see this?  Do you see what’s about to unfold here?”

Suffice to say it’s unfolding. As my sister used to say we’ll just have to be careful not to let TOO much blood get in our alcohol stream. 🙂

Lost in Translation

You think you’ll be fine in a place like Italy – unless you fail to pick up that instructional phrasebook until two hours before you go there.  Still, I was sure I could read all the road signs, just by recalling a couple of super-old French lessons and intuiting the rest. For example I saw many that said “Sit Down and Shut Up” – if the ‘ferm-’ root In Italian means to ‘close’ or to ‘shut’ as it does in French.  Saw a picture of smiling young men on a billboard advertising inseminations – at least I thought that’s what they were advertising if my method was working on the words ‘insieme’ and ‘studiando.

I was on top of it all; ready at every minute to yell “Ho Vomitato!” which is funny all by itself and basically means, “I pray you, kind hospital sir, I have felt the nauseation for all the day.”

Luckily on this trip with my old school chums we have had many kind angels helping us figure out what what we are trying to say. The last one was so excited to learn I was from near Boston and told of his colleague’s new establishment about to open up there. “Pizza Beach” he said it was to be called and wrote a hand-written note for me to give to the main guy the first time I go there.

So here’s to Pizza Beach then, with a name no funnier than the one chosen by an equally enterprising  person new to our shores reading “Chinese Take-out. Nice Eat You?”