Butchart Gardens on a Rainy Day

This Used To Be a Quarry

Everyone knows that gardens always look their best under bright sunlight. There is, however, one garden that looks great even on a rainy day. I am referring to Butchart Gardens, near Victoria, British Columbia. There is something about the plants there that shine in all weathers. When in Los Angeles, I love to hang out at Descanso Gardens, Huntington Gardens, the Los Angeles Arboretum, and the South Coast Botanical Gardens—but none of them hold a candle to Butchart Gardens.

The only garden in North America that I could conceive of as competing with Butchart is in Nova Scotia at Annapolis Royal: The Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens. Perhaps it has something to do with both gardens being more in the temperate climatic zone. In Los Angeles, at certain times of the year, even the most beautiful plants can look a little dusty and bedraggled.

Sign at the Garden Entrance

I have visited both gardens twice, and I love both of them. But then, I wouldn’t be at all surprised that there are other great botanical gardens of whose existence I am not aware. As much as I have traveled, I have seen only little bits here and there. Martine and I went to Annapolis Royal to see the citadel, not even knowing of the garden’s existence. The citadel is nice, but the gardens are spectacular.

 

Spy Vs. Spy

Could It Be That I Miss the Cold War?

Last year, during tax season, I started falling in love with spy novels. To be more specific, I started reading the spy novels of Len Deighton, starting with the “Harry Palmer” titles, of which I read the first four. (There are three more in the series.) Then I moved on to the Bernard Samson titles, where I am now, wending my way through London Match. Of course, I am also very fond of Eric Ambler, Paul Furst, and the inimitable John Le Carré.

Perhaps I subconsciously think that the Soviets were a more admirable enemy than, say, Sunni Arab Jihadists. There was a certain rationalism to the Russians, which seems to be lacking in the Arab world. I have always loved Russian literature, even more than American literature. Don’t worry: I have no intention of toeing the Marxist-Leninist line any time soon. The fact that, as a Hungarian, I lost a number of relatives in 1956 when the Russian tanks invaded, makes it difficult for me to be Pro-Communist.

I love spy fiction. It is so devious. Sometimes I wonder why the British are so good at it. There are American CIA novels of the Tom Clancy variety, but I never quite fit that groove. The British operatives of MI-5 and MI-6, have won some battles; and they suffered some serious defections, especially the Cambridge Five. The British seemed to have more at stake. I remember a British friend at Dartmouth College who told me that he felt uncomfortably close, geographically, to the Iron Curtain.

At some point, I will print a list of my favorite spy novels. But for now, I am going under cover.

 

 

Favorite Cities: Québec

View of Quebec Skyline from La Citadelle

One of my favorite cities in North America is French-speaking Québec. Martine and I have visited it twice, once staying in the city itself and once at Lévis, a short ferry ride across the St. Lawrence. It is a wonderfully walkable place, with spectacular views, fascinating little museums such as the old Ursulines’ Convent, and delicious French Canadian food. It is surrounded by 17th century ramparts which can be walked in several hours.

Many of the buildings along the St. Lawrence waterfront are built to resemble 17th century buildings, though they were built much later. There is even a funicular to take one from the waterfront up to the level of the city.

My Favorite Restaurant in Canada

To enjoy Québec to the fullest, it helps to be able to speak some French. Like the Parisians, the Québecoises appreciate it when visitors try to meet them at least halfway. Even when they speak perfect English, some of the residents will pretend not to, especially if they have reason to think that tourists are being ugly Americans.

One of my favorite restaurants in Canada is Aux Anciens Canadiens in the Old Town. Check out the menu, which comes in French and English. And enjoy your caribou and Canadian maple syrup tartine with cream. If you don’t mind having dinner late in the afternoon, lunch prices prevail until 5 pm.

In the weeks to come, I will name some of my other favorite cities around the world.

An Encounter in the Desert

Acoma Sky City

It was our third day in Albuquerque. Martine and I were visiting the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. While Martine wandered around looking at the exhibits, I stopped in front of a table covered with dozens of pieces of pottery that caught my eye. The artist was an Acoma Indian named Larry.

Now I had visited Acoma twice, and Martine, once. The Sky City pueblo shared with Old Oraibi on Third Mesa on the Hopi Reservation the distinction of being the two oldest continuously inhabited towns in North America. It sits atop a mesa closed to all but reservation traffic. One must take a bus from the Sky City Cultural Center and Ha’aku Museum to get to the top. Then, after taking the tour, one can take the bus back down or walk down a relatively easy trail.

I told Larry that we planned to visit Sky City in about a week or so, and that we had seen it before. I saw a pottery seed container bearing an image of a horned toad. Even though it was not cheap, I bought it because it was elegant. I explained to Larry that I liked to collect turtles and frogs because I, too, lived in the desert (9 inches of rain in a typical year); and turtles and frogs made me think of rain.

Horned Toad

This caught Larry’s attention. He recommended that when we next visited Sky City a week hence, we try to get a guide named Turtle.

As it turned out, Martine and I could not visit Sky City that next week: It was closed for a tribal religious ceremony. We were staying at the Sky City Casino on the Acoma Reservation, where I became ill. Martine had to drive me to the Indian Health Service clinic on the reservation, where I was fitted up with an IV with Solu-Cortef added. I got well quickly, as I wrote earlier.

Although we did not get to see Sky City during that trip, I felt in a strange way that I received a blessing of sorts while we stayed at the Casino. I even won a small amount of money.

 

Favorite Films: Paris Belongs to Us (1961)

Production Shot from Jacques Rivette’s Film with Françoise Prevost and Giani Esposito

They called it “The New Wave” as if half a century more would not pass and make a mockery of the term. It’s like those terms such as modernism and post-modernism. What’s next? Postpostmodernism? YetAgainModernism? It was definitely a new movement, breaking away from the stagy studio and going off into the streets of Paris. There were a whole slew of great directors, such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Alain Resnais, Eric Rohmer, Agnes Varda, Louis Malle, and let us not forget Jacques Rivette.

Rivette spent three years in making Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient). I saw it several times in the 1960s and early 1970s, and I loved the film anew with each viewing. Then the film dropped out of sight. Today, I watched the Criterion Collection version and once again fell for it. Except, now I think I understand the film whereas before I was merely dumbly enthralled by it.

This is the ultimate conspiracy film. Betty Schneider (Anne) goes to a cocktail party where the suicide of a talented musician named Juan is discussed. The people we meet at this party will continue to play a part in the film. Anne next attends a rehearsal of a production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre directed by Giani Esposito (Gérard). She is offered the part of Marina, the daughter of Pericles; and Gérard begins to fall for her. Gérard’s girlfriend is the Sphinxlike Terry, who seems to ward off everyone. Anne goes in search of a tape that Juan had recorded for Pericles, and runs into several people who knew Juan. One of them is played by director Jean-Luc Godard (below).

Betty Schneider and Jean-Luc Godard at a Café

Other people begin to die mysteriously, including Gérard and even Anne’s brother Pierre. There is talk of a worldwide Fascist conspiracy, a theory fomented especially by Daniel Crohem as Philip Kaufman, an American fleeing the McCarthy hearings in the United States. How did Gérard die? Was it suicide, or was he murdered. It appears that Pierre was gunned down by Terry. Why? There are no clear-cut answers. There is only the persistent Betty, making the rounds of people who might know of Juan’s tape in the labyrinth that is Paris.

In the opening credits sequence of Paris Belongs to Us, there is a quote from the poet Charles Péguy: “Paris belongs to no one.” Now, as I write about this film, I want to see it again.

 

Elagabalus

Elagabalus (AD 203-222)

It is generally accepted that the worst of the Roman emperors was Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus, who reigned from 218 to 222, when he was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard at the tender age of eighteen. My thoughts tend to turn in his direction when I consider the current occupant of the White House and various other Trumpf properties. Read what Edward Gibbon has to say about him in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

A rational voluptuary adheres with invariable respect to the temperate dictates of nature, and improves the gratifications of sense by social intercourse, endearing connections, and the soft coloring of taste and the imagination. But Elagabalus, (I speak of the emperor of that name,) corrupted by his youth, his country, and his fortune, abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures with ungoverned fury [Italics mine], and soon found disgust and satiety in the midst of his enjoyments. The inflammatory powers of art were summoned to his aid: the confused multitude of women, of wines, and of dishes, and the studied variety of attitude and sauces, served to revive his languid appetites. New terms and new inventions in these sciences, the only ones cultivated and patronized by the monarch, signalized his reign, and transmitted his infamy to succeeding times. A capricious prodigality supplied the want of taste and elegance; and whilst Elagabalus lavished away the treasures of his people in the wildest extravagance, his own voice and that of his flatterers applauded a spirit of magnificence unknown to the tameness of his predecessors. To confound the order of seasons and climates, to sport with the passions and prejudices of his subjects, and to subvert every law of nature and decency, were in the number of his most delicious amusements. A long train of concubines, and a rapid succession of wives, among whom was a vestal virgin, ravished by force from her sacred asylum, were insufficient to satisfy the impotence of his passions. The master of the Roman world affected to copy the dress and manners of the female sex, preferred the distaff to the sceptre, and dishonored the principal dignities of the empire by distributing them among his numerous lovers; one of whom was publicly invested with the title and authority of the emperor’s, or, as he more properly styled himself, of the empress’s husband.

Perhaps what this country needs is a Praetorian Guard detachment.

 

Mindalae – A Museum of Ecuadorian Handicrafts

Ceramic Snake

My brother and I were staying on La Niña in the tourist suburb of Mariscal at the Viejo Cuba. On our first day in Ecuador, we were tired out by the 9,000 foot (3,000 meter) altitude, but we had a few hours before vegging out for the night. Right down the street, at the intersection with Reina Victoria, was a fantastic folk museum called the Mindalae. Both of us were interested in purchasing some folk art: The Mindalae provided a guide to the best of what was produced around the country.

We took the elevator to the top floor and proceeded to walk down looking at the exhibits, many of them based on pre-Columbian originals. Included were ceramics, textiles, ceremonial objects, basketry, and other crafts. Adjoining the museum is a craft store with an excellent selection of items paralleling the exhibits, and offered at a fair price.

Costumes

The displays at the museum were in both Spanish and English. If you are interested in Andean handicrafts, it is a good idea to visit a museum like the Mindalae before visiting the various local markets. You will have a better idea of what is available in every region of the country.

Dan and I enjoyed the Mindalae so much that, after Dan left to return to the U.S., I visited it a second time.

So Much for Glory

Republican Prisoners of War

I have just finished reading Hugh Thomas’s monumental The Spanish Civil War. As its author became more rigidly conservative as he grew older, I read the original 1961 edition at the beginning of the historian’s writing career. It was an emotional experience for me: For years I had put off reading about the war, and I was devastated by its applicability to American politics in the 21st century.

It was George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia, written while the conflict was still in doubt in 1938, who influenced my thinking the most:

The human louse somewhat resembles a tiny lobster, and he lives chiefly in your trousers. Short of burning all your clothes there is no known way of getting rid of him. Down the seams of your trousers he lays his glittering white eggs, like tiny grains of rice, which hatch out and breed families of their own at horrible speed. I think pacifists might find it helpful to illustrate their pamphlets with enlarged photographs of lice. Glory of war indeed! In war all solderies are lousy, at the least when it is warm enough. The men that fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae—every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles.

So much for glory! Orwell took a bullet in his neck near Huesca in 1937 and was invalided out through Barcelona. Yet, for all the horrors of war, he was able to say in the end, “I have the most evil memories of Spain, but I have very few bad memories of Spaniards.”

Members of an All-Female Anarchist Party Group

Today we see the conflict merely as a dress rehearsal for the Second World War. Both Hitler and Mussolini send troops and weapons to the Fascists; and Stalin, the same for the Republican side. Curiously, neither Hitler nor Stalin wanted either side to win outright: Their interest was for the war to continue. In the end, Franco won because he was better supplied, and his side was not as badly divided as the Republican side. Look at the following list of acronyms on the Republican side. Each one represented a center of ideological purity which struggled against any sort of compromise:

  • CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo), the anarcho-syndicalist trades union
  • FAI (Federación Anarquista Ibérica), the anarchist secret society
  • POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), the Trotskyist group for which Orwell fought
  • PSUC (Partido Socialista Unificado de Cataluña), the United Catalan Socialist-Communist Party
  • UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores), the Socialist Trade Union
  • UMR (Unión Militar Republicana), Republican officers group

Several of the above believed in militias, but not in a professional army. On the other side, the core of Franco’s army was the Army of Africa, headquartered in Spanish Morocco, together with Hitler’s highly professional Condor Legion. Although the Republican army grew more professional as the war continued, it was badly split between the Communists and the non-Communists. As Thomas wrote:

Undoubtedly, the Republic was terribly hampered by the disputes between the parties who supported it.  One excuse might be that all the parties felt so strongly about their own policies that defeat itself seemed preferable to a surrender of the purity of their individual views.

As I read those words, the political divide that separates the American people came to mind. Ideological purity is a very dangerous thing. I do believe I would sacrifice the purity of most of my views before ever damaging the country I love.

 

“Remorse”

Argentinian Poet Jorge Luis Borges

I remember from my early days of Catholic instruction that there was something called in Against the Holy Ghost, which cannot be forgiven. The relevant Biblical text is Mark 3:28-29: “Truly I tell you, all sins and blasphemes will be forgiven for the sons of men. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” In our religion class, we all wondered what this sin could be. I never received a definitive answer (which is not unusual).

Here is a poem by Jorge Luis Borges on the subject, entitled “Remorse”:

I have committed the worst of sins
One can commit. I have not been
Happy. Let the glaciers of oblivion
Take and engulf me, mercilessly.
My parents bore me for the risky
And the beautiful game of life,
For earth, water, air and fire.
I failed them, I was not happy.
Their youthful hope for me unfulfilled.
I applied my mind to the symmetric
Arguments of art, its web of trivia.
They willed me bravery. I was not brave.
It never leaves me. Always at my side,
That shadow of a melancholy man.

According o biographer Edwin Williamson, the great love of the poet’s life was the poet Norah Lange, who married another poet Oliverio Girondo. She died in 1972.

Norah Lange

Borges lived with his mother for most of his life in celibate restlessness. He married twice. The first ended in a messy divorce. The second time was to the much younger Maria Kodama a few months before his death.

Serendipity: ¡Viva La Muerte!

Some of the Issues from the Spanish Civil War Seem Very Contemporary

I am currently reading the First Edition of Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1961).  Many issues between the Nationalists (Franco’s Fascists) and the Republic (very like our Democratic Party) seem to ring equally true for today’s overcharged political environment. On August 15, 1936, the Nationalists adopted the flag of the Spanish monarchy and made a number of speeches. After Generalissimo Francisco Franco and Gonzalo Queipo de Llano y Serra, there was a third speaker:

Next to speak was [José] Millán Astray, a man from whom there seemed to be more shot away than there was of flesh remaining. He had but one leg, one eye, one arm, few fingers left on his one remaining hand. ‘We have no fear of them [the Leftists],’ he shouted, ‘let them come and see what we are capable of under this flag.’ A voice was heard crying‘¡Viva Millán Astray!’ ‘What’s that?’ cried the General, ‘no vivas for me! But let them all shout with me “¡Viva la muerte! ¡Abajo la inteligencia!”’ (Long live death! Down with intelligence!). The crowd echoed this mad slogan. He added, ‘Now let the Reds come! Death to them all!’ So saying, he flung his cap into the crowd amid extraordinary excitement. [Page 272]

Fascist General Millán Astray

How like the Fascists to praise death and downgrade intelligence. “Don’t think too much,” they seem to be saying. “Just follow orders!” The Spanish left was like our Democrats: A Circular firing squad. There was the CNT (Anarcho-Syndicalist Trades Union), the FAI (an Anarchist secret society), POUM (Trotskyites), PSUC (the United Catalan Socialist-Communist Party), and UGT (the Socialist Trade Union). On the Left were militias, propagandists, the International Brigades from all over Europe and the Americas, and a whole plethora of irreconcilable beliefs and opinions. On the Right was the Spanish Army led by Franco and supplies and manpower from Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.